Blue Hill at John Mackey's Blog

July 17, 2010

Blue Hill

We continue eating our way through New York with a visit to Blue Hill, a restaurant with a menu that “showcases local food,” with ingredients from “nearby farms, including Blue Hill Farm in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a forty-five minute drive from New York City.”  As Frank Bruni described it in his review in 2006, it’s “food you’d almost rather hug than eat.”  That’s accurate.  This is food that celebrates the ingredients, not the preparation.  Perhaps I’d have appreciated it more if we hadn’t had this 48 hours after our dinner at Eleven Madison Park, where every course was prepared with brilliant creativity.  But back to Blue Hill…

The room itself is a few steps below street level in what used to be a speakeasy.  It’s an intimate space, with low ceilings, and it’s dark.  Dark, dark, dark.  I’d have thought it cozy if I wasn’t trying to take pictures, but this level of light was a big challenge for my camera.  I had to crank the ISO and the aperture in order to get anything, so the shots were noisy (thanks to the high ISO), and getting any consistent white balance, even with processing, was just about impossible.  But that’s enough bitching about the light.  There’s so much more to complain about.

After you’re seated, they bring you some bread.  The bread was pretty good, but not memorable.  I don’t believe it was warm, and it wasn’t sweet, or yeasty, or, well, much of anything.  It was… fine.

The next thing was our little complimentary amuse bouche — two teeny-tiny “burgers” made of snap peas on an almond bun. This was exceptional — easily the tastiest thing of the night. I could make a whole meal of just these, but sadly, you only got one-per-person, and they’re roughly an inch wide. Just delicious, though.  And free!

We each ordered salads, as it would be crazy to visit a farm-based restaurant and not order something consisting entirely of this fresh produce. Mine was the summer vegetable salad. It came with the greens in the middle (with the dressing underneath), and the other vegetables around the edge of the bowl.

After mixing it all together, it looked like this. It was very, very tasty. Incredibly fresh, with a delicate dressing that in no way masked the vegetables.  It tasted like lovely, lovely plants, and for a moment, I felt like a deer.  There was a small part of me that thought it seemed a bit basic — and small — for $16.

AEJ ordered the summer bean salad. If your idea of ass-kickin’ excitement is an absolutely perfect bean, then this salad would definitely knock you on your ass. These beans were, no exaggeration, perfect. But they were beans. And they took up less space in real life than you’re seeing on your monitor. $15.

For her entree, AEJ opted for the vegetarian option, figuring this place would know how to prepare vegetables.  Sometimes, AEJ orders the vegetarian tasting menu because it forces the chef to be more creative to make an entire dinner interesting without using any meat at all (not even bacon!), and there’s also the challenge for the chef to come up with something creative to justify the cost. When we ate at Hubert Keller’s restaurant — Fleur de Lys –in Las Vegas, AEJ’s vegetarian meal was much more interesting (and delicious) than my traditional meal. (If you haven’t seen Hubert Keller’s “lady bug of plum tomato,” you should check out my Vegas blog entry.)

This is Blue Hill’s “zucchini steak” — ricotta cheese, curried almonds, olives, and emmer wheat. To me, it was a little too vegetarian.  It tasted like grains and vegetables.  There was no pop of flavor, no real spice, just… zucchini and wheat.  $28.  Let me say that again. $28.

My entree was the ravioli with pork belly. This was delicious. The pork crisped up on the edges, the fat melted in your mouth. It was definitely good. There were, by my count, four bites of pork belly, and maybe a half-dozen nickle-sized ravioli. Price? Never mind. At this point, I just started chewing on my wallet.

My dessert was the chocolate bread pudding — molten in the middle — with vanilla ice cream. Again, very tasty. Not exceptional — not massively chocolaty or rich — but good. Why they chose this course to not include any fruit is a little beyond me.

The lack of fruit in my course was remedied by AEJ’s dessert, strawberries with Blue Hill Farm jam, peanut butter ice cream, and some incredible peanut butter-type goo. As AEJ said, “these are the best strawberries I’ve ever tasted in my life.” I tasted one and agreed. And the peanut butter was really something special. The desserts were both quite good — AEJ’s won, though, by far — and were a relative bargain.

So that’s Blue Hill. To be clear, it’s very good. The ingredients are fresh — probably picked (or slaughtered) that day, all organic, just perfect. The presentation is minimal, a celebration of the ingredients, not of innovation. The portions are extremely small, as if each course were part of a 12-course tasting menu, when in fact, these were the full-size portions. I’m not a big eater — I love food, but I don’t need a huge portion of anything — so my complaint is not that there wasn’t enough food. My issue was that for the amount of food presented, the prices were astronomical — and, to state the obvious (if you’ve been reading the blog for the past five years), I’m not normally one for, um, pinching pennies at a nice dinner.  That’s our big splurge.  But that said, this felt awfully expensive for what it was. It was so minimal that one could go to Wheatsville CoOp in Austin, buy a bunch of local organic ingredients and a Niman Ranch pork belly and put something very similar together for a whole lot less money and feel just as good about not trucking your vegetables from 1000 miles away.  As AEJ said, “I feel like at Blue Hill, all I’m paying for is not having to walk to the farmer’s market myself.”

I sort of think that if Blue Hill were anywhere besides NY or the Bay Area, people wouldn’t pay these prices for fresh vegetables.  But if I apply that logic to any restaurant, nobody would pay NY prices for much of anything outside of NY. If you eat in NY, you have to pretend you’re at Disney World or the airport, and just accept that a soda is $4 and there are no free refills. (Does that sound like a depressing fortune cookie? “There are no free refills in life.” So true. So true.)

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