Blue Hill: Casual Elegance for Digestive Reactionaries

Written by Matthew DeBord on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Blue Notes

Blue Hill

75 Washington Pl.

(betw. 6th Ave. & MacDougal St.),


What that means is that
Blue Hill, as culinary enterprise, merges nicely with my personality. And that’s
one of the very few things I seek when it comes to relatively fine dining: a
colloquy with my self-esteem, a few hours of gustatory and environmental affirmation.
By and large, I am not thrilled by "finds" of "scenes" or
the whole obscene hootenanny of trawling for the elusive chic under the pretense
of filling one’s belly. I like to fill my belly amid surroundings that
are soothing, easygoing, relaxed, chummy, casual, commendable. And I like to
fill my belly with food that tastes good and that doesn’t require excessive
explanation or a high level of multicultural curiosity. I am not a culinary
colonialist–I am a digestive reactionary.

That doesn’t mean I
like boredom. Thrills–simple ones–are fine, within limits. One of
the problems with New York restaurants these days is that they have, in many
cases, surrendered to a funhouse mentality, or an ethos of fanciful evocation
or…stunts. Le Cirque 2000 and the Russian Tea Room are the two most obvious
examples, but the trend if rife. There’s too much faux setting up
shop all over town. Too much fakery. Blue Hill sits squarely in the middle of
the continuum of productive resistance to this trend. At one end, the most satisfying,
reside Gramercy Tavern and Gotham Bar & Grill. Stalwarts. Great New York
Restaurants. Moving on along, Savoy. Home. Union Square Cafe. Indigo. The Independent.
All restaurants that, to varying degrees, make patrons feel comfortable and
happy and place the emphasis on food. Patriotic places. Havens for the preservation
of the good and the just in roasting and sauteeing and grilling and whatnot.

To that list, I now add
Blue Hill, which is to my stomach what clear breezy days are to my soul: a reason
to live. Not that Blue Hill, which has been open for a few months, doesn’t
have some kinks to iron out. In fact, what few kinks there are seem all the
more glaring because the overall mood of the restaurant is so compelling.

Located a few steps below
the street, Blue Hill beckons in the same way that the Grange Hall does, but
in snugger confines and with a cleaner, more David Rockwellized design. It feels
reliable and serious and above all else adult, but the impression is
never ponderous, never didactic. And really, who wants a restaurant to supply
moral improvements? Well, maybe I do, but I’ll settle for subdued lighting
that drifts mellowly and mysteriously from narrow slots in the ceiling. The
thick gray stone slabs of bartop, which greet diners on arrival. The dark, polished
wood floors. The narrow banquets that efficiently line the blank walls. The
round tables. I could do without the paper sheets that shield the white tablecloths,
but given that Blue Hill will probably not strike its rich vein of profitability
for a while yet, I can understand why the management might want to spare the

Otherwise, the decor is
swank, without making too big a deal out of it. Sneaky swank. And utterly, blissfully
devoid of a theme. Presumably, you could wear whatever you want to eat at Blue
Hill, but the quiet elegance of the space discourages the idiotic excesses lately
spotted on the youthful denizens of sleek Manhattan: cargo this, techno that.
Shiny garb, underclad women with slatternly eyes, men with enormous wristwatches
and weird hair. I wore a blazer and tie when I visited. So did a lot of other
guys on the premises. My companions, all women, wore sweet dresses and tasteful
jewelry. I didn’t spot any dumb cocktails. There was no music, and conversation
was pleasantly hushed. There was a joyful, relieved dignity to be found in it
all. A sense of purposefulness and professionalism and welcome signs that the
world has not completely lost its manners and been given whole hog to teenagers.

The food was pretty good,
too. (Not to mention the service–Blue Hill jumped through hoops to seat
our sixsome on short notice, and they were endlessly pleasant about the request.)
Here’s how it went: Blue Hill has some work left to do on the starters,
has achieved veritable perfection with the entrees and needs to reconsider the
desserts. The wine list is impeccable, though certainly not stuffy. Again, my
kind of place, and also my kind of wine list: not one of these sprawling, telephone-book
affairs, but a neatly curated lineup of selections that represent the three
pillars of contemporary New York restaurant sommeliering: classic, homegrown
and new. In other words, they’ve got Bordeaux, they’ve got California
and they’ve got stuff you might never have heard of, but will perhaps not
forget after a taste or two. (Plus, they have a nice big EuroCave wine storage
system in a short vestibule between the kitchen and the dining room, making
it thoroughly pleasant to sit in the back–the view is reassuring, and there’s
a buffer between diners and the steady stream of arriving orders.)

For the booze, we accepted,
based on our choices, the recommendation of our waiter, a genial dude who has
officially entered the running for "Best Village Waiter" in our upcoming
"Best of Manhattan" issue. The special–and the second priciest
entree for the evening, at $25–was tuna belly, or "toro," a lush
cut of tuna that, as I’ve heard it, typically gets harvested on the docks
as the tuna boats come in, then is swiftly purchased by Japanese brokers for
immediate shipment back to Japan, where it becomes one of the more highly coveted
forms of sashimi. I had sea bass ($21). Several others went for the hanger steak
($23), but they didn’t drink wine, so what we needed, in the end, was an
apt companion for the flaky smokiness of my sea bass that would also work with
the richer tuna. Chardonnay was out, as I thought one would be awful with my
fish. A sharper, more citrusy white, like sauvignon blanc, wouldn’t fly,
either–wrong for the tuna. I had in mind something with a little semillon
in it. But then our waiter suggested an Alsatian pinot blanc, and bells went
off. Dry, but with some textural oomph, and as is often the case with Alsatian
or German white, full-fruited enough to stand on its own against rich dishes.
Anyway, it was excellent. A splendid match, and only $36, a relative bargain
for the quality.

Before tuna and sea bass
and steak, however, we adventured into the appetizers, and were a little disappointed.
I chose foie gras, which was prepared like baklava: goose liver sandwiched between
layers of flaky crust. Interesting in concept, flawed in execution, and not
cheap ($14). I mean, foie gras is foie gras. There’s no point in dressing
it up. Saute it, plate it, sauce it. End of story. Bay scallops ($11) were better–hefty
and buttery–but still no great shakes, and hampered by too many greens
and not enough sauce. And before I forget, the table was gifted with an amuse-bouche,
shot glasses of pea soup, of a beautiful color (rich celadon), and elegantly
pureed, but too heavy on the garlic.

Entrees, on the other hand,
were stupendous. The tuna belly was dense and flavorful and threatened just
enough with fire to acquire a robust, Americanized flavor. Sea bass was served
over a delicious mussel chowder, reminding me that the whole technique of presenting
delicate fish in bowls over some kind of savory stewed something–first
encountered at Zoe several years back–continues to work quite well and,
furthermore, offers plenty of room for continued experimentation.

Desserts? Solid, but (we
later decided) wrong for the season. Chocolate bread pudding and rice pudding
(with passion fruit "foam," really more of a passion fruit puddle)
in August? We should have stuck with ice cream. And Blue Hill’s dessert
chef should work up something with more fruit in it. There’s no faulting
the restaurant for dessert wines, however. We tried three: a Coteaux de Lyon,
a Banyuls and a late-harvest Australian riesling. All were fine conclusions
to one of the year’s more heartening meals.

I can’t wait to get
back to Blue Hill in autumn, when there’s more meat on the menu, and the
first dry-cool intimations of the changing season allow me to wear tweed. I
think tweed’s going to look pretty sharp in there, against the russet woods,
in the pools of honeyed light. A space in which to luxuriate, and to breathe.
And, to be sure, eat.