Blue Hill: Conscientious Calvinist Cuisine

I’ve been coming to Blue Hill since it opened, and I have always admired the ambition if not always the results of Dan Barber’s continual searching and reinvention.  There was a citrus phase, which was delightful during the lemon period but not so much when grapefruit was predominant.   And there was a time when asparagus was a little too ubiquitous.  On my last few visits those distortions were gone.  Local and seasonal no longer meant lapses into monothematic and monochromatic menus.

That said, it’s been a while since I’ve checked in, so I thought it was time this summer, when I’m using neither the season nor the weekend as verbs, to head to the island flagship.  I was especially keen to do so after enjoying Barber’s vegetable dish at this year’s C-CAP benefit.   He put together a striped beet dish with a horseradish cream that was visually stunning and tasty, a platonic ideal of Borscht.   If he could do such things with vegetables in February, I could only imagine what he’d have of on offer in July when things were really in season.

Hoping to get the widest spectrum of tastes, I opted for the Farmer’s menu.  It was by no means a disappointment, but it was also by no means a delight.  An opening amuse of oil slicked snowpeas, tomatoes and carrots on a bed of nails was whimsical in a retro-Inquisition chic/Grant Achatz house made tableware sort of way, but it didn’t taste good enough to justify the presentation. This was an Alinea-style setup without any payoff.

A followup series of spreads with Olive Garden type breadsticks was the most generous and hearty dish of the night.  The pork fat was tasty, as was the ricotta and the house butter.   Unfortunately, it was a last ditch burst of flavor before blandness and boredom set in.

Lobster on a bed of tomatoes didn’t make the case for the combination, which is usually a no-brainer.  Neither had much flavor and neither benefited from the pairing.  A much talked about chicken course was best for its broth but lacked the succulence of Bouley’s sous vide version—which Barber should know well—or the simple heartiness of a dozen roast chickens on offer elsewhere in the City.   It didn’t take Curnonsky’s maxim of food tasting of itself far enough.  The result, like much of the meal, was a course that tasted like high grade spa food.

No red meat followed the chicken—lamb, ostrich or beef could have done wonders for giving some weight to the end of the savory progression.  Rather, we went straight into what were somewhat deceptively labelled “desserts.”

A strawberry canneloni—more like a fruit rollup—continued the diet feel as did another unmemorable entry.   Here again, a single addition could have solved the problem.  A chocolate or caramel based dessert could have brought much needed closure to the meal and left me with a sense of the kitchen’s generosity.   Instead I felt a subtle nudge either to go take a jog or to go eat a few slices of lardo pizza over at Otto.

Additional thoughts: Food service was warm, intuitive, knowledgeable and flexible. Wine selections, especially a Loire sparkler and a semi-oxidized Alabariño were interesting, appetizing and well-priced.  Wine service was also well thought out with one exception: one person at our table stopped drinking after a certain course but was still charged the full pairing price, something I’ve never seen happen before.

Conclusions:  Avoid the tasting menu and enjoy excellent food.  Tasting menus have become tourist traps at far too many upscale restaurants.  People think they’re getting a greatest hits but end up with safe selections meant to offend no one—kind of like cruise ship fare—and excite almost no one.  The best, riskiest and most interesting selections were all on the a la carte menu, and that’s where I should have made my choices.

Sticking to my intuitions rather than handing over the reins to the chef, I could have pieced together a meal worthy of my memories of Blue Hill past.  Barber is a  man who cooks his own food and writes his own articles, which makes him 1) a rarity and 2) an artist and advocate worth supporting.  Next time I hope to get a better taste of his talent.

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2 Responses to “Blue Hill: Conscientious Calvinist Cuisine”

  1. tigerdog Says:

    Maybe the era of big flavor pork part dining has left my taste buds addled by excess intensity. Maybe I can’t appreciate the subtleties in food more like an old school French wine than oaked up California Chardonnay and fruit bomb Zinfandel. Perhaps I need some time to reset my palate before delving into this type of food.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    It’s not self-righteous in any way, but it does feel a bit austere at times. Try throwing in the slow poached egg for a little buttery richness. It’s not steak Rossini, but at least you won’t go home craving pizza!

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