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Eat and Drink

That time I accidentally had the most expensive meal of my life

It was my birthday recently and for that, I expect nice things. My boyfriend knows this because he is a good one. So when I asked if he would book dinner at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, the famed farm-to-table restaurant in Westchester's Pocantico Hills, he graciously obliged.

If you know how expensive Blue Hill is, you might be gasping. I knew quite a lot about Blue Hill -- I knew it was led by chef Dan Barber, I knew the food came from the same grounds the restaurant shared with the Stone Barns agricultural center and the Blue Hill farm in Massachusetts, I knew it was nice -- very nice -- and something for special occasions. I knew it was hard to get in to, which is why I was pretty excited to realize you could easily book online if you were willing to go on a weekday. Here’s what I did not know, nor did I somehow ever check out -- the only option at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is the many-, many-course tasting menu at a whopping $198 per person. You want wine with that? That’s an extra $138 per person for the pairing (they also sell wine by the glass and bottle).

I’ve been to nice restaurants before, but this was a whole new class of extravagance that I had not yet entered -- nor was I really meant to. I finally noticed the price tag on the day of our reservation, just hours before we were getting ready to go. It was too late to back out then (the restaurant also charges $50 per person for late cancellations). Well, I’ll bring the AmEx, the boyfriend said, and we embarked on one of the best dining experiences either of us has ever had.

Ever found yourself in over your head? Based on my experience, here’s what you might expect from all those big, fancy restaurants:

Fancy restaurants don't always mean fancy food

Sure, a lot of the Blue Hill menu
Photo Credit: Flickr/robynlee

Sure, a lot of the Blue Hill menu is innovative. But equally outstanding were the incredibly simple things. The meal started with some fresh, raw veggies presented artfully on a wooden plank with spikes. I’ve never had such amazing cauliflower in my life. It was dressed with a very light touch of olive oil, salt and pepper and the bite-sized thing bursted with flavor when eaten.

In fact ...

You'll have fun

There was no pretension involved here just because
Photo Credit: Erin Geismar

There was no pretension involved here just because the bill was high enough to buy one and a half iPads. The food was often whimsical -- think parsnip “candy” in a seaweed “wrapper” with twisted ends; eggnog served in a chocolate egg over an edible nest; a root-beer float with a candy-striped straw.

The staff was lovely and helpful, as well. Every dish was explained to us in detail, they answered our questions, cared about our needs and even joked around.

Plus…

There will be finger food

You thought fancy restaurants were too well, fancy,
Photo Credit: Flickr/ttseng

You thought fancy restaurants were too well, fancy, for finger food? Nonsense. We had near 10 courses before we even thought about utensils. And when we did, we were wrong.

We reached for our forks after we were served a beautiful bowl of mussels, but there weren’t any. We called over our waitress (who was never more than two feet away, seriously) and asked for some cutlery.

“Oh you don’t need silverware yet,” she said. “Trust me, you’ll get plenty of silverware in good time.”

She was right, of course. What we had in front of us was not a bowl full of mussels but a bowl full of decorative shells and just two lovely mussels perched on top that we slurped out, oyster-style. They were delicious. “In good time,” we were given a whole basket full of silverware to use at our discretion.

And speaking of utensils …

Plates be damned

We were served food on spikes, food on

We were served food on spikes, food on charcoal slabs, food on stones that came from the restaurant grounds, food on sticks. Only deep into the meal when we were finally served meat courses were we served food on plates.

One of our waiters had a visibly hard time clearing a granite slab we had finished with. It probably goes without saying we were not seeing any busboys walking around with dirty plates lining their arms.

Mini everything

If you think of everything coming out of
Photo Credit: Flickr/robynlee

If you think of everything coming out of the kitchen as a taste of the tasting menu and not a course, then it makes perfect sense that all the dishes were so teeny weeny. But if that’s not what you were expecting, well you’ll quickly have to get on board. One of my favorite dishes was also the cutest -- tiny, bite-sized beet burgers. We’re not talking sliders, we’re talking doll food. Even though we left the restaurant completely stuffed, this was the one dish I still wish I had so much more of.

If you have to ask

If the slightest concern flutters across your mind,
Photo Credit: Erin Geismar

If the slightest concern flutters across your mind, ignore it. No need to worry at a place like this. They’ve anticipated your every need and are just waiting for the most opportune moments to fulfill them.

Won’t our farm-to-table options be limited in the middle of February? We wondered. No sooner had the thought crossed our minds did a waiter come by our table with a cart full of goodies. It was no buffet; he explained that in the winter, many of their vegetables come from a greenhouse on the grounds, and others have been preserved from the year before. He pointed out all kinds of summer and spring treats like tomatoes and ramps that were carefully stored and would be popping up in dishes throughout our meal.

Where did everyone go? We wondered, when we noticed that nearby diners were leaving their tables for 20 minutes or so then returning. “Do you want to go on a field trip?” we were asked shortly afterward, and we were escorted to a table in the kitchen, where we ate venison over beet bolognaise so good that my eyes watered from excitement.

And then naturally, the maitre’d began not just answering our questions but anticipating them. “I wanted to talk to you about the trains,” he said kindly toward the end of our meal. He advised us of the train schedule and warned that the next train might make us feel rushed, so he suggested the following. “And how is our dog?” we were tempted to ask about our pup waiting at home. But we behaved.

Between the incredible food and the other-world service, this dinner is one we’ll be savoring for a very long time -- particularly over the next month when we tighten the purse strings and eat beans for dinner every day.

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