Profiling has become a dirty word in this country. But if a case can be made for extrapolating information about people, the staff at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, could serve as Exhibit A.
Their questions might start near where coats are collected, or in the bar. ("Your first time with us?" "Where are you from?") And their eavesdropping determines whether you might be the sort of diner to welcome lamb chops or lamb brain. Unbeknownst to diners, the intel makes its way back to the kitchen, where an assembly of cooks and servers use it to create one-of-a-kind meals for people who might have booked months ahead for one of 75 seats.
You don't get a menu when you sit down, in other words. You're asked to trust chef Dan Barber and associates with your appetite. Barber, 49, opened the dining destination – a 35-minute express train ride from Manhattan, home to the original Blue Hill – with family members 15 years ago, on land donated by the late David Rockefeller Sr. Almost from the start, the one-time dairy barn and its environs, located within the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, have redefined American fine dining.
Tailoring a dinner to individual tastes is one of many ways in which Blue Hill at Stone Barns sets itself apart from the high-end competition. Another is the way Barber, author of "The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food" (2015), has diners jumping on his bandwagon at first bite, and without the benefit of forks or knives.
"Vegetables from the garden," a server announces the first course, a slender piece of wood showcasing delicate pieces of endive, bok choy, purple cauliflower and radishes, each held aloft on a thread-thin prong, and each ready-to-eat with a brush of lemon vinaigrette. A grand centerpiece in the middle of the dining room brings the outside in, too. The "garden" is quickly followed by spinach leaves – a few beneath a glass cloche, a few in a baby tent – allowing us to compare the green as it's grown in a hot house vs. outside. The latter tastes heartier and earthier.
Next, a few jokes: "Beet ... jerky," says a server as he presents just that, a satisfying chew toy spiced like the gas station staple. A fistful of hay appears, and we're instructed to find "needles in a haystack," aka cheese grissini so thin they blend in with the mound. Meat finds its way into the first flight of snacks – to call them courses would be a stretch – but as an accent rather than a headliner: dehydrated sweet potato nestled in a magenta fold of speck, for instance.
My companion and I look out onto a view of the lawn, where cooks are tending a grill custom-designed by the Argentine-inspired, American-crafted GrillWorks. When our gaze returns to what's on our table, we see something akin to a miniature palm tree. "Kale stems," their leafy tops sauteed in brown butter, explains an attendant, who advises us to slice off the wispy leaves with a pair of antique shears.
Why aren't more chefs serving fried kale leaves? They're fantastic. A few courses later, we're introduced to kale marrow, scraped from the inside of the stem, braised in vegetable broth and pureed with shallots, a creamy indulgence.
Twenty or so minutes have passed when we realize that we have yet to use other than our fingers to pick up the food. Also: Why are the strangers next to us, seated at around the same time, eating scallops while we're eating (and admittedly enjoying) lush cubes of liver pâté held together with tiny chocolate tiles? Must have been something either one of the parties said. Based on a diner's reactions and interactions, a meal here "can change within seconds," says Philippe Gouze, director of operations.
The young men and women dropping off these one- and two-bite wonders appear to have been recruited from the model ranks of IMC. Some are smoother or chattier than others. Not all have front-of-the-house experience. At any point in the meal, the person introducing you to a dish could be one of the kitchen's 40 cooks – the best guides, given that they've likely foraged, and definitely prepared, what you're eating.
'Choose your own adventure'
"Shall we take a field trip?" The first-time visitor might be perplexed by the question; having had the good fortune of eating here several years earlier, I know it's the point of the meal where we're led to someplace else on the property. Previously, I was introduced to the restaurant's compost room. Tonight, we get escorted to its bakery. There, sourdough loaves made from einkorn await sampling, and pans of chocolate bread approach doneness in a big, see-through oven. A chef-server shows off a mill and bowls of bran and flour that demonstrate why the staff of life is the stuff we like. Nearby is some butter, churned on-site, as you would expect by now. Grains are as important to Barber as vegetables. Working with a wheat breeder at Washington State University, the chef, who has won eight awards from the prestigious James Beard Foundation, even developed a signature strain (Barber Wheat).
We return to our tables and find a leather pouch containing the first utensils of the night, a bundle that includes the expected knives and forks but also chopsticks. ("Choose your own adventure," says Barber. "We're not telling people how to eat.") We use long-stemmed spoons to retrieve the aforementioned kale marrow from its stalk. Our candles have been switched out, too. Gone is the liquid wax at the base; in its place is melted tallow, which a server uses to whip up a vinaigrette for another course – but not before talking our eyebrows down.
Until this point, we figured the little jar of pickled vegetables on our table was decoration. After we snack on the tangy rhubarb and such within, a server combines the pickling liquid with chicken broth in a clear cup, resulting in one of the brassiest intermezzos in a lifetime of meal breaks.
It's fashionable these days for chefs to fill only half a plate and leave the rest of the space empty. Blue Hill goes a step further by serving half a plate, sometimes made from china that's been broken by accident, and had its jagged edges filed down. Little goes to waste in this restaurant.
A surprising entree, a lofty bill
Given everything that's come before it, our entree proves a surprise. It's simply a piece of pork framed with some bitter radicchio and not much else. Barber later tells me he was inspired after eating at the novel El Bulli in Spain and encountering steamed shrimp after a parade of head-spinning dishes. His point: If an ingredient is perfect, "I can't do anything to make it better." My pork, from pigs that have been raised on restaurant leftovers as well as expired dairy and spent grain from a local supermarket and brewery, respectively, is extraordinary. Does cooking the flesh over charcoal made from the animal's bones, a typical practice here, heighten the flavor of the meat? Does it matter?
The bill is lofty, but at least there's no question about what to leave the large cast of pamperers. "Tipping is not expected or accepted," says Gouze. Instead, a 20 percent administrative fee is added to the tab.
At the beginning of the night, we're promised a menu at the conclusion of dinner. What I get, though, is a slim piece of paper with unintelligible markings – and a smear or two – that looks as if the list passed Jackson Pollock on its way to my table. Initial disappointment (how am I supposed to fact-check my memories?) gives way to amusement when Barber explains that "most people don't see the kitchen. This shows its hectic nature." Since no two dinners are alike, he says, "there's a different playlist for everyone."
Before we leave fantasy for reality, a server hands us a loaf of chocolate bread in a cloth bag. But of course! Someone must have told someone else we looked at it wistfully during our field trip to the bakery. Blue Hill at Stone Barns isn't just a mind reader with great taste; it's a living, breathing wish-fulfillment center.