Wednesday, August 16, 2006

how to order well

At an excellent restaurant, one assumes, every dish on the menu soars. Yet experience has shown me that there is variation, a gap between the best items on a menu, and the worst.

On a glorious sunny Sunday—hot and bright—six of us met in Pocantico Hills, NY at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. The interior, a refurbished dairy barn, is a study in coolness, a respite from the blaze outside. It is not a place to curl up and get familiar, but I appreciate the crisp elegance; it feels like a special occasion. Most of the food comes from just outside the windows, and the kitchen is run by experts. When the runners bring your food, they circle the table, six at a time, silently and synchronized, placing plates.

The winners: the culinary student among us notes that, if something as mundane as meatloaf is on this elegant menu, it must be something special. She is correct; it is outstanding. The panzanella with seared tuna freaks me out in description but in actuality is tremendous. The secret weapon: heirloom tomatoes, perfectly in season. A lesson duplicated by the unexpectedly sublime green bean salad—they, too, also at their natural peak. The pasta was apparently a disappointment. Lesson 3: it had nothing in its description that was perfectly in season and no meat to wow or lend favor.

It helped me start to think about how to navigate menus, and how to make the right choices. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, however, it is hard to go too terribly far afield. Even the losers were winners (like corn soup with a crab cake), and the desserts--thanks ot our man Tony in the kitchen--can right any wrong.

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