Adventures of a Gastronome in Training (GIT)

One amateur foodie's quest for culinary enlightenment. Musings on cooking, dining, food products, basically all things edible are fair game.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

For at least a month or so, I have been on OpenTable trying to get a weekend reservation for Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Finally after weeks of trying, I succeeded with a Saturday evening slot. As all good planning seems to go, Marty had to be out of town that weekend. So, I tried again and felt pretty lucky to score a Friday evening reservation. I plotted out our journey – from Grand Central Station take the Hudson Line to Tarrytown ($7-9.25 each way), then cab it to the restaurant ($7-9 each way). The route from downtown Manhattan takes about an hour and fifteen minutes thanks to the express train (it’s another 15-20 minutes more on the local train). I had visions in my head of a relaxing train ride along the Hudson capped off with bucolic farmhouses surrounded by pastures filled with livestock and hand harvested gardens. Instead, the remnants of hurricane Ivan obscured what wasn’t already cloaked by darkness at our 7:30 p.m. arrival to the farm. From what I’ve read, Stone Barns is a lovely 80-acre farm and agricultural center donated by the Rockefellers that consists of restored 1930s barns, silos, and farmhouses spread out on rolling hills.

In the restaurant dining room, the white walls blend seamlessly into the soaring ceilings contrasting with the exposed metal rafters. It is a simplistic design that allows the grounds to be the highlight. To me, both my fellow diners and the space reminded me of the fine dining establishments in Midwestern suburbs. That might not mean much to most people, but to kind of made me smile. Anyway, it’s spacious and pleasant without pretense. The staff is enthusiastic, informative, and happy to answer questions.

The untraditional menu is divided into four categories: Tomatoes, More Tomatoes, From the Pastures, and Hudson Valley Pastures (themes change with the seasons). You can select from the groups in any order and pay accordingly (two courses [$46], three courses [$56], four courses [$66]) - desserts are separate. Only the last dish in succession will be entrée sized with the preceding choices scaled down to appetizer portions.

Chefs Dan Barber and Michael Anthony have the resources at their fingertips and thankfully know how to use them. Our meal initiated with a shot of liquid corn, sweet and simple. I dove into the colorful heirloom tomato salad where the expected tomato flavors and textures were contrasted interestingly with a tomato sorbet and watermelon chunks. Marty’s baby romaine lettuce sat atop a fresh tasting eggplant-tomato tapenade and was served with a vinaigrette that danced with addictive bits of pancetta. It was topped with an egg that looked like a hard-boiled egg covered in breadcrumbs, actually it had been fried – great texture and flavor. Next the crabmeat arrived hiding under thin slices of cantaloupe and squash. The sweetness of the cantaloupe at times overpowered the crabmeat, but I still enjoyed the combination of fresh flavors. Marty’s cod was perhaps my favorite dish. It sat in a tomato-coriander sauce, almost like an Indian masala, with chanterelles. Finally, I had the pork trio, a combination including a thick slab of bacon, a slice of sausage, and small tenderloin. It was such a treat with every juicy and savory bite, especially those that included sausage. Marty’s duck with Asian greens and carrots was excellent, perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful. As it always seems to happen, we were too full for dessert – maybe next time…

I have to say, the meal was a knockout – the best I’ve had since moving to New York. I guess that means I agree with Frank Bruni’s three star review. Considering the quality, it’s also be quite a bargain if you have a car. But, since we don’t, the $60 we spent on transportation certainly negates the overall value. Even so, with fall at our doorsteps, I can’t imagine a better way to spend an early Sunday dinner (that way you can actually see the grounds and enjoy the views from the train).

Monday, September 13, 2004


Hearth opened last November with considerable expectations for chef-owner Marco Canora and partner-wine director Paul Grieco. Canora most recently held the point position at Craft and Craftbar, and the “less is more” influences at Hearth are apparent. This is probably okay since Tom Colicchio (Craft, Gramercy Tavern) not only taught both Canora and Grieco, but is a financial backer of the restaurant. Critics have been complementary (Grimes, Hesser, Rubenstein), but Egullet-ers and Chowhound-ers have been more enthusiastic seeing a great opportunity to have Craft dishes like hen of the woods mushrooms ($9) at more everyday prices.

The warmth generated by the name Hearth is not translated to the sparse and simplistic environment. The rustic brick walls are set off with shiny copper pots, and the ceiling is painted a brilliant red. I liked the staff uniforms of blue stripped button-downs with Levi’s. They, more than the décor, set the tone for an unpretentious dining experience, that and the wine menu – well, beer menu to be specific. I usually don’t order beer in a “fine dining” experience, but the respectable list of a dozen domestic and international beers including De Musketiers Blond Ale from Belgium ($8.75) and Stoudt’s Gold Lager from Pennsylvania ($6.50) told me otherwise.

The meal started out with the red snapper crudo with lemon, red pepper, and rosemary ($10) and dandelion salad with anchovies ($12). I preferred the simple flavors and silky texture of the raw snapper with the lemon and red pepper. Marty favored the salad where oil from the anchovies infused the dressing giving the whole salad a zing. For an entrée, I tried the black striped bass with roasted garlic and wilted rapini aka broccoli raab ($24). It was a solid, simple dish the played together nicely. Marty had the lamb sampler or “roasted and braised domestic lamb with lamb sausage” ($26). It was hard to choose whether the short rib or tenderloin cut was best. Actually, I’m not sure what cuts they were – that was just my best guess. The sausage was not all that trilling, but when you have a sampler something has to be the relative loser. We couldn’t resist trying the straight from Craft gnocchi side dish ($7), which are, as reported, pillowy soft with subtle parmesan flavor. I just can’t believe they can get potatoes to take on such a light feel. We were in a hurry for dessert, so our waiter suggested we try one of the essentially “warm and serve” offerings. I have to say Lauren Dawson, Craft's former pastry sous-chef, did not let us down. The warm plum tart ($9) was wonderful, buttery, mildly sweet, and all together a surprise hit. It didn't matter that it was served with a forgettable lemon thyme ice cream.

Hearth offers thoughtful cuisine aware of seasonal and local ingredients as well as simplistic flavors at surprisingly fair prices in a welcoming atmosphere - seems like a great mix to me. Since I have only been to Craftbar once for a sandwich and never to Craft, it’s hard for me to compare. I do fear having a lower priced alternative will put a bit of a delay on heading out to either anytime soon. In fact, today I made another reservation for Hearth for a treat next month…

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Home-style Sushi Bonanza

With sushi prices what they are in Manhattan (anyone up for Masa’s $300 per person chef’s omakase lunch or dinner?), I’ve found the best alternative -save maybe waiting in line at Tomoe Sushi on Thompson- is to make it at home. Sure, the rice may not be as expertly prepared, and our rolling technique wouldn’t fly even at the most amateur styled sushi bar, but you sure end up with a lot more change in your purse. Besides, it’s such an easy and fun meal for dinner parties.

Sushi spread for four

Last weekend after a tiring hike in the Catskills, we swung our rental car over to Misuwa Market Place in Edgewater, New Jersey. This chain Japanese grocery is huge and has everything from a bakery to a travel agency to an excellent sashimi-grade fish selection. For example, you can spend anywhere from $20 to $70 per pound for an array of sashimi-grade tunas. It’s a full-scale grocery with all the veggies, dairy items, and frozen treats you could hope for. Even the Manhattan-bound car-less can join in on the fun and take a bus over (see their website for details). For our sushi blowout for four, we stocked up on the following:

 Yellow tail (½ lb at ~$23/lb)
 Toro (Choice tuna belly, ½ lb at ~$32/lb)
 Salmon (½ lb at ~$20/lb)
 Freshwater eel
 1 package Surimi (imitation crab)
 ½ lb Shrimp
 30-sheet pack of roasted seaweed
 Powdered horseradish (for wasabi)
 1 Cucumber
 2 Avocados
 Spinach
 Salmon eggs (Ikura)
 Eggs (for Tamago, sweetened omelet)
 Sushi rice
 Soy sauce
 Rice vinegar

Chef Grace

Our friend Grace has been making sushi at home for years, so she acted as head chef while the rest of us did our best to help out. Most of the prep is in cutting things up like the avocado, cucumber, and fish. For making the tamago, just take 3 well-beaten eggs, 1-½ tablespoons of sugar, and a splash of soy sauce and cook like you would an omelet. Then cut into strips. For the spinach, rinse well and sweat in a fry pan with water and a bit of soy sauce. For the spicy mayo, add some chili oil to mayonnaise to taste. For the wasabi, add just a little water to a tablespoon of powered horseradish until it reaches a pasty consistency. And finally, for the rice, cook in rice cooker as directed. Then fold in a couple tablespoons or more of rice vinegar to taste.

The burrito roll

The result is a lot of fun. You can get creative or go way over the top (see Marty’s burrito roll – he was really hungry from a day of hiking…). We just did hand rolls this time, since we were pretty tired out. All you need to do it cut the seaweed sheet in half and make triangle with your rice. Place whatever your heart desires on top, and roll into a cone. Our general feeling was that everything was of good quality, especially the tuna - it was exceptional. The only true disappointment was the freshwater eel. It always tastes much better in restaurants. By the end, we were all stuffed – quite an accomplishment with sushi.

Hand-roll with yellow tail, ikura, and avocado

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Popcorn: the Secret Ingredient

I am a popcorn fiend – I love it. To Marty’s dismay, I still find myself reviving my college habit of popcorn for dinner when he’s out of town. But, I have to say for myself, I make a pretty good bowl. Actually, it’s one of my signature dishes (that may say something about my culinary skills). It’s such a simple pleasure, but I consistently get strong reactions from people when I serve it. Well, against my better judgement, I’ve decided to give my popcorn secrets away. So pay close attention to the following, and you won’t be disappointed.

1. Never, ever use microwave popcorn. I get that it’s a short-cut, but it’s only saving the approximately five minute prep time to make it on the stove where you get better texture and control of the flavoring.

2. Butter. Sure this is a pretty basic concept, but again the microwave imitation flavoring doesn’t stack up to the real deal. A slight improvement in taste, but perhaps the least healthy liquid one could chose to consume, is the imitation butter flavoring used in theatres across America. Comparatively, it should make you feel like a health nut pouring a couple tablespoons of butter on your bowl.

3. I tried out a lot of seasonings over the years - salt alone just doesn’t cut it for me. About eight years ago, I came across Johnny’s Popcorn Salt, and haven’t used anything else since. In fact, when we moved to Atlanta and stores didn’t carry it, I ordered it on the internet. I guess you could say, this is my secret ingredient. The somewhat alarming neon orange color doesn’t come through when it’s sprinkled on, but it does give the corn a certain pop that I haven’t found elsewhere.

The secret ingredient

Well, now you know my secrets, so all you need to do to get your own bowl going is:

½ Cup Popcorn Kernels
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1-2 Tablespoons Butter
Johnny’s Popcorn Salt

Put two kernels in a saucepan with the vegetable oil, cover the pan, and place on high heat. After one of the kernels pops, add the remainder of the kernels (put the lid back on), and start gently shaking the pan over the heat. Once the popping slows down, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl. Add melted butter then salt to taste.

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Jennie/Female. Lives in United States/Jennie Auster/New York, speaks English. Eye color is blue.