Pete Wells, the restaurant critic for The New York Times, can be a champion of chefs when he is so moved. In his reviews, he often praises the kitchen staff’s work, even if he doesn’t believe the restaurant as a concept works. Then, when he critiques an eatery that lives up to its self-proclaimed ethos, he holds little back in his accolades for the maestro or maestra of the kitchen. Such was the case in his review this week of owner and chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill in Greenwich Village, which he awarded a prestigious three-star rating, as Wells’ predecessor, Frank Bruni, did in 2006.
It is clear Wells strives to highlight chef Barber’s innovation and strong command of food, as he begins the review with a comical story of his server presenting him with two raw squashes, “One was the common football-size butternut…The other had the same shape but was about as big as a sparrow. I held it in my palm...Without thinking about what I was doing, I began petting it. The couple at the next table asked if they could see my tiny squash…Before things got too weird, our server took my pet squash back to the kitchen. When it came back, it had been roasted and cut in half…It was sweeter than a normal butternut, but what I mostly noticed was that it tasted squashier, as if all the flavor had been compressed.” Wells hen reveals the gastronomic point of the story, which is that the little gourd was an invention borne by the instance in which “Dan Barber, Blue Hill’s executive chef and a co-owner with his brother, David, had asked a Cornell agriculture professor to design a squash for him…The result is the 898 squash, served exclusively at Mr. Barber’s two restaurants, Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., and this one.”
This serves as a testimonial, microcosmic example of Well’s message in his review of Blue Hill, which is that “Mr. Barber has become a dirt poet and kitchen philosopher whose time outside with the pigs and the beans has had a deep, lasting effect on the way he cooks. Today no other chef has the information he keeps in his head (how to make pure carbon out of a cow’s femur) or the vegetables he puts in his ovens (sparrow-size squash).” And although at first it may seem that there is nothing special about Barber’s focus on local, seasonal ingredients, it’s the chef’s hands-on approach to Blue Hill’s farming, research, and educational programs that sets him above just about all the rest: “Mr. Barber opened the [Blue Hill location] in Manhattan first, in 2000, with the idea of using local seasonal produce, including some from his family’s farm in the Berkshires. This put him in the company of, oh, several hundred other chefs. A few years later, though, he was chosen to lead an ambitious project at Stone Barns that combined a farm and a restaurant with research and education programs. It turned out that he was born for the job.”
The critic does include notes on what he found displeasing during his meals there, but although this is not explicitly made clear, it seems he does this to justify why he was unable to award that coveted fourth star. There were some service missteps, “If Blue Hill had as many cooks and servers as its more favored sister upstate, they would probably iron out wrinkles like the long, stranded layovers between courses; the wineglasses that sat empty and were finally cleared with no offer of fresh ones,” and he was not impressed with the offered wine selection “the $23 glass of Rully poured ice-cold, so it was clenched and astringent. It also seems far out of character that this intensely local restaurant sells just two New York wines on its Francophilic (and not very value-minded) list, and that its only cider comes from California when there is a cider revival going on in Mr. Barber’s own, apple-rich state.” Still, Wells makes his admiration for Barber and the entire Blue Hill concept very apparent, and declares that despite a few small imperfections, “Blue Hill is still an exceptional restaurant. Mr. Barber’s long search for flavor out of town pays off downtown, where you find yourself thinking, again and again, that each new ingredient may well be the best example of its kind you’ve ever tasted.”