75 Washington Place
(Between Sixth Avenue and Washington Square Park)
Noise Level: Low
Wine List: Unusual selections from small vineyards, reasonable prices
Credit Cards: All major
Price Range: Main courses, $28 to $32
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
On a recent Sunday evening, my friends arrived at Blue Hill early and fell into conversation at the bar with a professor and a high-school teacher. The small dining room is warm and intimate, with a low ceiling and bare brick walls, and chocolate-brown banquettes with raised backs act as sound buffers. It’s normally rather sedate, but tonight some young women at a nearby table were becoming increasingly boisterous. The teacher finally lost patience. “Shhhh!” she hissed. The entire restaurant fell stone silent.
Blue Hill is just around the corner from New York University, so many of its customers—and it has a loyal following of regulars—must be well used to hushing or being hushed. The restaurant is in a former speakeasy in the basement of a townhouse near Washington Square. Tables are covered with white paper over linen, and the staff wears long white bistro aprons and blue shirts. The casual style doesn’t prepare you for the high caliber of the cooking here. Perhaps that’s why Blue Hill is underrated. Chef/owner Dan Barber and chef Juan Cuevas (who was formerly at Lespinasse and Alain Ducasse), are producing a sophisticated modern cuisine that’s on a par with some of the city’s best restaurants.
When Mr. Barber first opened Blue Hill five years ago, he created an ambitious seasonal menu with produce from greenmarkets and his family farm in Massachusetts. Last year, he opened a sister restaurant at Stone Barns on the Rockefeller estate up the Hudson, just 24 miles north of the city. The farm there now supplies both restaurants with virtually all of their produce, meat, eggs, poultry and even honey.
My friends and I sat down at a corner banquette near the bar and ordered a glass of this year’s hit wine, the Basque Txakolina, pale gold and slightly fizzy, served in a thin-rimmed tumbler as an aperitif. Blue Hill’s wine list is short but interesting, with many choices from lesser-known vineyards, and the prices are reasonable. The terrific sommelier guided us to a Kuhling-Gillot Scheurebe Kabinett from Rheinhessen, a fruity wine that perfectly complemented our food. The staff is well informed, too—although sometimes you might learn more than you wish. “Our veal tonight is baby veal, brought up by its mother, who has only been fed on grass …. ”
We began with a taste of soup delivered in shot glasses—the “last of the tomatoes,” the waitress said sadly. These late-harvest tomatoes had been roasted and smoked over wood chips before being puréed into a wonderful soup. The waitress set down a small wooden board that had two rows of thin, communion-like wafers slatted into it. “They are baked with ‘fifth-generation’ garlic.” Of course. (The garlic is named, in fact, for an Italian immigrant who brought over a highly prized sweet specimen; the family would only sell it chopped or peeled so that no one else could grow it. When the last farmer retired, he gave his bulbs to Mr. Barber.)
After the soup, I had a plate of exquisite tiny fall vegetables—variously raw, marinated or flash-cooked over high heat—mingled with toasted pistachios, fresh soybeans, apples and fennel in a mushroom gelée. It was permeated with the aroma of purple basil and was unbelievably good. So was a warm wild-mushroom and chicken-liver salad with baby greens and toasted pistachios in a herbaceous pine-nut vinaigrette.
Mr. Cuevas has worked in top restaurants in Spain, and he brings subtle Spanish touches to some of the dishes. Slices of foie gras (not raised on the farm) come on a green glass plate accompanied by puntarelle (wild chicory), fennel, tapioca and apple, with a Prosecco vinaigrette and toasted Marcona almonds. It’s light and refined, with a lemony sweetness—the last thing you’d expect with foie gras. Fluke arrived in a big white bowl with honmichi mushrooms, fennel, chopped herbs and fennel fronds floating in an intense, clear broth made from tomato, zucchini and cucumber water, drained in a cheesecloth. Three smoked shrimp were plopped on a bright green lawn of puréed herbs sprinkled with “panther” soybeans. Cod, an all-white dish, was served in a creamy almond shellfish broth, laced with strips of zucchini and Marcona almonds.
Mr. Barber and Mr. Cuevas like tart, citrusy tastes. The crabmeat salad, with mint and cilantro, micro greens, green-tomato marmalade and diced apple was pure heaven. The Berkshire pork was wonderful, but the bitterness of an arugula and mustard-herb pesto served with it didn’t set off the meat to the best advantage. I loved the tiny, tiny lamb chops, with tiny, tiny potatoes, cannellini beans and lettuce, along with a dollop of braised leg and shoulder. Cobia, a large white fish with meaty, firm-textured flesh, came with colorful twin sauces, a rich purple Concord grape cooked with roast lobster shells and port, and a yellow pepper sauce.
Blue Hill serves a great chocolate brioche bread pudding with roast peanuts and salted caramel in the middle. The apple cobbler is deconstructed: The apples come in a Mason jar, and the crumble is served on the side. Seckel pears poached with caramel were laced with a passion-fruit sauce that kicked the pears into action. A dark chocolate soufflé with ricotta ice cream was a little dry but had great flavors. The fromage blanc soufflé was flawless, with pink peppercorn ice cream. Tiny fresh pears at the peak of ripeness were served as petits fours alongside chocolate truffles.
As we were finishing our marvelous desserts, the women from the once-raucous table got up to leave. The schoolteacher was at the table next to us, and one of the culprits stopped in front of her and glared. “Next time you come here, take a Valium!”