Saturday, May 30, 2009

Obama Date Night In New York: Dinner at Chef Dan Barber's Blue Hill, And A Broadway Play...

Yesterday, the world was alerted that President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama would be going to New York today for dinner and a Broadway play. While the details of what show the First Couple would attend were "leaked," the restaurant was kept top secret, until the Obamas actually showed up this evening. (Above: The First Couple leave DC, en route to NY).

When streets started to be closed in Greenwich Village earlier this evening, and snipers appeared on rooftops, local residents figured out pretty rapidly that the Obamas were coming to their neighborhood.  Twitter was awash with speculation, most of which was correct: The Obamas would be dining at Chef Dan Barber's Blue Hill, on Washington Place, in an old row house, three steps down and underground, in what used to be a legendary speakeasy. A huge crowd gathered outside the restaurant, hoping to see the President and First Lady

It was a pretty easy guess for anyone familiar with the NY restaurant scene...and with Obama predilections...to figure out where the Obamas were headed. Barber is the hot chef of the year; on May 4, he won the top honor of "outstanding American chef 2009" from the James Beard Foundation, the culinary equivalent of winning the Nobel prize, medal and all (in pic).

Barber uses local and sustainably sourced foods to create what he describes as "American Seasonal" cuisine, and he's considered a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement. He's a critical fave as well as a favorite among diners; New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave Blue Hill three out of four stars; his review is here.

Blue Hill staff declined to comment about what the Obamas ate this evening. But Chef Barber cooked has a very special locally sourced menu, which includes appetizers such as Maine crab meat with Stone Barns Focea lettuce and pine nuts with yogurt sorbet, and Greenhouse Greens and Herbs with roasted and confit mushrooms, lettuce and mustard vinaigrette. For entrees: There's cauliflower steak with asparagus, dried fruit and almonds; and a Cobia with "wintered over" parsnips and asparagus, topped with paddlefish roe. (Above: The dining room at Blue Hill)

Dessert include dishes like the chocolate bread pudding with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream and or/the honey crisp apple with saffron cream and honey ice cream.

Barber was honored by the Beard Foundation for using his New York restaurants -- Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills -- to "highlight the difference seasonal and sustainable agriculture can make on the plate."

It was the third time Barber had won a Beard medal; previously he'd been best NY chef, and before that, best new chef. But Barber is far more than a chef; he's the visionary behind Stone Barns Center For Food and Agriculture, an 80-acre working farm in the Hudson Valley, about thirty miles from Manhattan. Stone Barns is a member-driven collaborative that focuses on advocating and teaching community-based Ag. Much of the food Barber uses in his restaurants originates there--or is sourced from other farmers in the Hudson Valley. The beautifully sited farm is home to classrooms, and plenty of educational farm experiences for members and visitors, in addition to the restaurant.

Barber is no stranger to the Obamas. On May 5, the day after he won his Beard medal, he hung out with the First Lady at the Time 100 gala in New York.

"I wouldn’t call us pals, no, but she was great," Barber told Grub Street.

Barber was also one of the chefs who signed a congratulatory letter to the Obamas from Chefs Collaborative, which was delivered to the White House on Earth Day. Based in New York and run by Executive Director Melissa Kogut, Chef's Collaborative is the leading nonprofit network of chefs, and fosters a sustainable food system through advocacy, education and collaboration with the broader food community. Their thank you letter was initially a campaign to encourage the Obamas to have a local/sustainable aesthetic in the White House kitchen, but when it became clear that the Obamas had already achieved enlightenment in this area (cue Sam Kass), the letter turned into a thank you campaign. More than 360 chefs and CC members signed the letter.

Of course, no Obama event is without controversy: the Republican National Committee decided to put out a press release bashing the NY Date Night; read the blather here, at the Chicago Sun-Times Lynn Sweet's blog. The President's response through a White House spokesman was, naturally, excellent:

"I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished."

After dinner, the First Couple headed to Broadway to see August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Belasco Theatre. Amusingly, one of the central characters in the play is a fellow who makes cookware for a living. Times Square was mobbed with crowds hoping to catch site of the President and First Lady.

*Blue Hill in New York is at Front A, 75 Washington Pl, New York, NY 10011. Phone: (212) 539-1776.

*During Campaign Season, Dan Barber wrote Change We Can Stomach, an Op Ed with advice on food policy for then-candidate Obama. *Dan & Fred Dialogue: A conversation moderated by Tom Philpott with Dan Barber and Ag policy thinker/farmer Fred Kirschenmann on what the Obamas should do about food policy is here at Grist. *An interview with Barber, at the James Beard Foundation, is here.

Photos: President and First Lady photo by pool/Reuters, Barber by NY Daily News.