Monday, January 24, 2011

No Words: The Blue Hill Experience

I find myself in a fit of speechlessness after my latest dining experience. There are few words that can accurately describe the meal I just enjoyed at Blue Hill, Stone Barns. But, the adrenaline and pure unfiltered inspiration I currently feel is compelling me to make an attempt to allow anyone who may read this to at least, even if on the most basic level, share in the breathtaking joy that has just been placed in my soul. For six and a half hours we sat around a crowded, round table, and for the majority of it, I sat with great friends, silently contemplating the wonders that had been placed in front of me, and patiently awaited the magic that was sure to come.

Those who follow my stuff will know that my good friend and roommate Jon is a cook at Blue Hill; a restaurant that is doing something that is for the most part entirely unique to Blue Hill. They own 90 percent of the farmland that produces products for the restaurant to use. It is a place where the faces of the people behind each ingredient shine through the plates. You arrive, sit down, and simply submit yourself to the will of the Chefs, and prepare yourself to pay homage to the ingredients presented to you.

Jon worked a lunch shift, then met up with us as we arrived. There were nine of us in total. Jon, Myself, and five other friends from school. Two of Jon's friends from home came up to meet us for our meal. At 5 15 we were seated. And immediately Jon was whisked away to the kitchen my the Maitre'D. He was gone for several moments. And while he was absent from the table I had images of Jon being asked to hand deliver a bottle of champagne to the table. I envisioned Jon being asked to suit up and personally oversee the production of our plates. I didn't now what to expect. He finally reemerged from the kitchen, and explained after I asked him what had happened. Apparently Dan Barber, Chef Owner, had taken the time to personally express to Jon that he, along with everyone in the kitchen, would be cooking their hearts out for our table. I knew at that moment, that the meal would be unlike anything I had ever experienced, or may ever experience again.

We ordered the 8 course tasting menu, which comes with several amuse bouches, or small bite courses, and a few desserts. First, we toasted Jon with a little champagne. Then the flood gates opened. First, we received a few vegetable fences to share. Baby vegetables, served in a light vinaigrette served on individual skewers all brought out in a large wooden block. It was a nice start. We were then brought individual serving cups of beet gazpacho (a cold beet soup) with horseradish sorbet. Our next course was the veggie chips. Cooked and dehydrated assortments of vegetables were delivered to the table. There were beet chips, potato chips with sage, parsnip chips, and smoked kale chips.

Next, the first mind-blowing dish arrived. I immediately recognized it when it was presented. Jon had told stories of this dish. A soft cooked egg yolk, wrapped in a gossamer thin sheet of lardo (pure salted slabs of pork fat). I grabbed a spoon, placed it in my mouth, and let the warm egg yolk, and slightly salty pork fat just melt on my palate. So rich, yet so delicate. I wanted more, but was surprisingly satisfied at the same time. While everyone else had placed their spoons back on the plate, I kept the spoon elevated between my thumb and forefinger, eyes closed, hoping that when I reopened them, another tiny egg yolk would appear on my spoon, ready to be enjoyed. I will dream of that one bite for years and years.

Next, a small "beet burger". A patty made of beets ground with spices, vinegar, and assorted pickles served on a tiny, warm sesame seed bun was a welcome contrast to the rich, luscious dish that I had just enjoyed. The dish that followed, a skewered piece of salsify, perfectly cooked, with a base wrapped in a thin slice of pancetta and coated in sesame seeds, was near perfect. The salsify was almost creamy as I nibbled down to the little nugget of pancetta and sesame on the bottom of the piece. When I finally reached the nugget of joy, my whole palate was gently warmed by the melting fat from the pancetta, and was followed by a light crunch from the sesame.

The next course might have been my favorite amuse course. Thin slices of sweet coppa (a salted and rolled pork product that I would describe as a cross between ham and salami) served on top of small rounds of polenta cake. The polenta cake was like no polenta I had ever had before. I was expecting the lumpy, gummy block of boiled cornmeal we all know so well, but it was a piece of the lightest, sweetest, most moist cornbread I'd ever had in my life. And the perfect piece of coppa on top, warmed slightly just to release some of the oils inside of the meat, went perfectly with it.

The next course was a thin layer of shingled out venison salami served on top of a crispy corn flatbread. To die for. The salami was again warmed to release some of the natural oils in the slice. As I ate it, some of those oils rubbed off onto my lips, leaving my licking my lips for several minutes in an attempt to get every last little taste of the salty, gamey, oily goodness.

The next course was one that I was honestly a little worried about. Venison liver pate with caramelized chocolate and sea salt. The guy sitting on my right, Zach, had had this before, but with duck liver. I thought the venison liver would be way too strong, and gamey. And as I popped the little rectangle in my mouth, I was hit hard by venison straight away, but the sweetness from the chocolate slowly coated my mouth and the finished taste on my palate was actually pleasant, chocolate with a slight lingering gaminess. Not bad at all.

The final amuse course, I knew right away. My friend Simon had advised me at all costs to do everything in my power to get the bone marrow. And as they cleared the last course and placed long, slender silver spoons in front of us, I began to cheekily smile, as I knew what was in store, but noone (except Jon) had any idea what those spoons were for. And when the bones were set in front of us, it was as if I had just opened up an awesome present on Christmas morning. On top of the marrow was a bit of roughly chopped parsley, and a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs. Too good. The creamy, warm meat butter inside those bones is stuff legends are made of.

We were finally given silverware, which signaled the end of the amuse bouche courses. Now for the actual meal we were paying for. It was at this point where Jon informed me that he had spoken to the chef de cuisine earlier. He had asked Jon what we wanted to eat. Jon told him we'd eat anything, including offal (organ meat) and that there was one little boy at the table who would love it if we had a wee bit of pork... i.e. Myself. Our server even asked us if we were okay with a bit of organ meat, I smiled and rapidly nodded my head up and down.

The first course was the most forgettable course of the menu, but it was still delicious. It was a small rectangle of layers of pressed egg crepes, and in between each layer was different vegetables. Also on the plate there was a little espelette pepper and a small pool of sauce grabiche.

The next course was a 12 hour grilled onion. Each of us was presented with a half of an onion which had been grilled over an open flame for 12 hours. It was served with an array of condiments, beet tartar, pickled winter vegetables, olive tapenade, and something with pork in it. For obvious reasons, the last was my favorite.

We were then presented with thick slabs of heirloom grain brioche, gently toasted on one side. Accompanying the bread were large cups filled with warm, soft, made minutes ago ricotta cheese. I spread spoonful after spoonful of the stuff on top of my bread, sprinkled a little sea salt on top, and voila, some of the best shit I've ever put in my mouth. Warm, soft bread, enriched with lots of egg yolks and butter, slightly sweet. The cheese, warm and runny, slightly salty. This is where I stopped eating and exclaimed... holy shit. I desperately wanted my sister to be eating this dish with us. The girl who could live on bread and cheese alone. The girl who on Christmas morning was ecstatic when I melted a little butter and a few slabs of cheddar on a cheap grocery store baguette. This was bread and cheese like I'd never tasted. She'd have pissed her pants. I tried to savor it a little more, in her honor. Who knows, I learned a thing or two about baking brioche from the lady bakers in Madison. Maybe she'll get lucky next time I'm in town.

The next dish was brilliant. We were presented with shallow bowls, and at the bottom of the bowl was a long, thin slice of what looked like prosciutto, but the smoky aroma immediately gave it away as speck. On one end of the slice was a little bundle of sauerkraut, and on the other end was a little white pillow of something. I wasn't quite sure what. The server then explained the dish, Speck with poached cod cheek, sauerkraut, and sauce charcutier. For all of you who haven't had the privilege of trying fish cheeks, especially those of fish like halibut or cod, it is the most delicate, rich and wonderful bit of fish on the whole animal. The salty, smoky speck when mixed with the sweet cod cheek, and the tangy kraut was out of this world.
And it became obvious that the guys in the kitchen were looking for more and more ways to hit us with pork. I like that.

The next course was where it started to get real crazy, real quick. A soft poached egg was placed in front of us, in a small bowl. It was covered with a thin slice of some sort of meat, and served in a pool of a vibrant green sauce. We were informed that the egg was corvered in venison heart. A small roar of excitement was going on in my own head, so I completely missed what the sauce was. Jon later mentioned something along the lines of phitoplankton. It was completely unidentifiable to my palate, but completely delicious. I did the instinctive thing. I cracked the yolk with my spoon, allowing the yolk to run. I mixed it all up until the greed sauce was swirled with yellow yolk, and bits of red venison heart. They had the foresight to deliver a basket of warm, crusty country bread and butter to the table, so after a few spoonfuls of the stuff I began dipping hunks of bread in the bowl. So great.

Then came the dish I will have dreams about for the rest of my life. A brilliant pasta course that I would have paid 80 dollars alone for. The bowls were delivered and I immediately recognized the dish, not from ever having eaten it before, but because I had seen a similar dish many times in an episode of No Reservations. Eric Ripert has a dish that I have been obsessively craving for several years. A pillow of angel hair pasta served with an Uni Broth and caviar. This rendition of the dish I had tonight, was perfect. The server described to us that the thick spaghetti like noodles in front of us were actually made with "honey nut squash", a hybrid squash that the farm is currently developing. The squash is roasted, pureed, and hung in cheese cloth for three days to rid the mass of excess moisture. Then it is incorporated with flour and eggs to form a delectably chewy, slightly sweet pasta. The pasta is served with an uni broth. (Uni is sea urchin roe, and probably my favorite thing in the world aside from pork and cheese). Uni tastes of the deep ocean, it's slightly salty, slightly sweet. And somehow they got the broth to have a slight foam on the top, reminiscent of the ocean. The first bite was pure bliss. The sweet chewy pasta, with the rich salty broth was out of this world. I wanted to slurp op my first forkful, but then I remembered my setting, and the fact that I was wearing my nice suit, and decided against it. The only downside to the dish was the fact that they hadn't left any of the bread out for me to sop up the remainder of the broth in the bowl when the pasta was gone. I thought about licking the bowl clean, but again, decided that to be rather unwise.

The next dish was the kitchen's attempt to hit us with their best shot. I wanted pork, and that's what they gave me. Pork loin, perfectly cooked and sliced in a tower on the plate; slow roasted pork belly, crispy pork brain, tender pork snout, goose tongue, and root vegetables. I started with the loin, incredibly moist and flavorful. I then went on to the belly, a few layers of tender, slightly chewy lean pork kept me occupied as a thick layer of pure unctious pork fat slowly oozed out from between them. The pork brain, out of this world. Imagine a chicken mcnugget, but filled with pork, and every time you bite into it, a little bit of porky cream oozes out. The dish was truly a great cap to the savory courses, and it successfully satisfied my lust for pork.

I, being the man I am, decided to do the honor or ordering a cheese course. I told the server that I loved stinky cheese and she obliged. She delivered four cheeses. One looked rather familiar, and as she started explaining the cheeses, I didn't allow her to finish. "First we have Ban..." Those three letters confirmed my suspicions and I exclaimed, "BANDAGED CHEDDAR FROM BLEU MONT DAIRY IN WISCONSIN!" She smiled, impressed with my knowledge of the cheese. This cheese was my second favorite cheese while I was working at L'Etoile. I've met the people who make this cheese. I made it a point to put it on every chef's choice cheese plate that I put out. It's incredible, the ability food has to bring back the most obscure memories and emotions. And as I sunk into the first bite, I was immediately transported back to that rectangular table, on the second story of that old building on the capitol square in Madison. The first time I ate dinner at L'Etoile, the day before I started work there, having just met Tory for the first time. I had ordered a cheese plate. And the first cheese I tasted was bandaged cheddar.

The desserts were great, though I was so emotional and food drunk at this point that they are pretty foggy in my mind. The one thing that stands out was the fresh yeast ice cream with caramelized white chocolate. Ridiculously good.

At the end of the meal, we went back into the kitchen. It wasn't as big as I had expected. And the cooks were breaking down, scrubbing all the equipment, just like every kitchen in the world. It reminded me that when it all comes down to it, in the end Blue Hill is still just a restaurant. It's an extremely special restaurant, with some very special people, and extraordinary food. But they don't get ahead of themselves. It's still all about the food, all about letting the beautiful products of the farm, and the skill of the farmers and the cooks shine through each plate, whether it was the smallest simplest amuse or the most complex thought out course. I consider myself blessed for being able to experience it with the people I did.

Several times throughout the meal I had to stop, put down my fork, close my eyes, and think to myself. "This is not a dream, you're actually here. You actually just ate that."

Cheers to Jon for making this meal possible for all of us. Happy Birthday bud.

Mike Kolodzej.


  1. Beautifully written; even love a couple typos because they speak to your enthusiasm and the fact that you may still be numb with joy from the whole thing. Thank you Mikey for blessing the rest of us with these gorgeous and delicious details.

  2. Thanks Nancy, I was a little too excited to proof read. Hope all is well in Madison