The White House is on the phone……
|With Chef Damon Baehrel|
Who do you want to bump – Arnold’s party or Martha’s?
The Basement Bistro, Earlton, NY
776 Route 45, Earlton, NY
Reservations: (LOL) 518-269-1009
I should start by telling you that you are probably not going to get in. I’m just writing this to whet your appetite and tell you what you are missing. My friend Steven has been trying to get a reservation at The Basement Bistro for two years. Two years! I’m not kidding. Blessedly, Chef Proprietor Damon Baehrel doesn’t put us through the orchestrated reservation groveling that some destination restaurants demand. To get into Batali’s Babbo in New York you need to call exactly thirty days prior to your target reservation day, at exactly 10 AM. Of course the phone is busy and after feverishly hitting “redial” for thirty minutes, someone will answer and inform you that all reservations have been filled for that day. This is the reason that I haven’t been to Babbo in years. No such pretense here at the Basement Bistro. You can call on pretty much any day (but no more than sixty days in advance), request a reservation for pretty much any day, and they will apologize and inform you that all seats have been booked. They will however be exceedingly nice about it. Chef Baehrel has actually called my friend Steven on occasion just to talk, explain that they are still booked for this month and next month, and promise that he will get in someday. I, on the other hand have been there twice, which aggravates Steven to no end.
If you have not heard about the Basement Bistro you are not paying attention. Located in the basement of the owner’s home in Earlton, the restaurant shares space with Chef Baehrel and his wife Elizabeth’s farm, their Sagecrest Catering operation and kitchens, and twenty or so acres of gardens, orchards, mushroom, and all things edible. Damon is to the “farm to table” movement what Alex Rodriquez is to baseball. If you don’t believe how tough this ticket is, go to their website www.sagecrestcatering.com. Look at the Reservation Backlog and “Report from the Chef” which reads “We are currently fully reserved for February 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 ,11, 12, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28.” The only open dates are Mondays and Tuesdays. Oh, I forgot to mention that during the winter they’re closed Monday and Tuesdays . (Notice that he doesn’t just say “We’re booked”, he details every single day that is booked; I assume just to rub it in.) Yesterday the Albany Times Union reported on their website that the White House was trying to get a reservation for the Obama’s at the restaurant. I can only assume that the White House released that information in a desperate attempt to sway public opinion and perhaps influence Chef Baehrel to let the President and Mrs. Obama have dinner.
My personal experience at the Basement Bistro started with a phone call – out of the proverbial blue – from a friend inquiring if I would like to join him and some friends for dinner that weekend at the restaurant in question. I of course responded in the affirmative without checking my calendar, being perfectly prepared to cancel my papal audience if necessary. Don’t ask me how he came to have reservations. When someone calls asking if you would like to share his box at the Met to see Rene Fleming, you do not ask who is conducting, or challenge the provenance of the tickets. This is how I came to be sitting in a limousine heading south from Schroon Lake with ten assorted producers, directors, voice coaches, and other opera types from the Seagle Music Colony, heading for Earlton, NY, twenty miles south of Albany. Our host Joel had arranged the festivities and the transportation, and we were all giddy knowing that we had scored the hottest ticket in foodiedom. We were not to be disappointed.
We arrived slightly early for our 6 PM reservation. The restaurant schedules two seatings each evening, and suggests that you allow four plus hours for dinner. When we arrived Chef Baehrel met us just inside the front door at the entrance to a very small dining room. There was no one else there – no other diners, no other restaurant staff. My initial reaction was that they were closed and we had somehow gotten our nights mixed up, but Damon quickly welcomed us and explained that we would be the only people in the building that night. There would be no other diners (which was also the case on a subsequent visit). There would also be no other staff present. In addition to preparing our meals, Chef Baehrel is also the host, captain, waiter, runner, bus boy, sous-chef, sommelier, and dishwasher. He explained that he likes to work alone. I hope so. I guess that is one avenue to total quality management. This feat of multiplicity is only magnified by the fact that the chef not only cooks the food, he also grows it on the surrounding farm, preserves it, forages for the mushrooms and wild herbs, butchers the meats and fish, and then when you or I would be screaming for help, he gets to clean the bathroom. Unbelievable.
Chef Baehrel mentioned some of the courses that he would be preparing that evening, and encouraged us to take our time. The next party was not scheduled to arrive until 10 PM. They were flying in from Vancouver and would drive down from Albany Airport. He explained that they did this frequently, that they would actually be eating at a proper dinner hour by Vancouver time, and would arrive back on the west coast in time for breakfast. Same procedure for “Arnold” and his family when he and his family come to dine. I swear I am not making this up. Damon turned out to be a name dropper extraordinaire. “Martha” had just been in with her TV crew. “Jerry” was scheduled for the following week. I began to see why our space was at such a premium.
Our host encouraged us to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine. He opened a few bottles of Chanson Vire–Clesse, a crisp white burgundy from Macon, that I believe Joel had ordered for us in advance. He delivered a few baskets of bread and butter and I immediately knew that this was going to be an unbelievable meal. I love bread. Really good bread in the north country is very, very, hard to come by which is the reason I took up bread baking as a hobby many years ago after a weekend crash baking course at the Culinary. Restaurants that serve great bread go right to my favorites list before I even see the menu. This was one of the best bread baskets that had ever been put before me, accompanied by a butter that Damon had (of course) churned himself, explaining that the deep yellow color of the butter came from the marigolds that the cows had gotten into. If anyone else has ever heard that line in a restaurant I want to know about it. Even if it’s not true it’s a great line. The basket had two types of artisanal bread, a classic sliced peasant boule and a flatbread that Damon had baked with lavender and parsley from the garden. It really did present a quandary. Damon produced as many baskets of bread as you would ask for, but you also knew that we had not yet seen the first of the ten courses that we would be served that evening. Give me a loaf of freshly baked bread, homemade butter and a glass of Macon and I am satisfied for the night. It was really hard to stop and save room for the meal.
What followed was three hours of Damon coming and going from kitchen, clearing and chatting, serving and chatting, filling wine glasses and chatting. Every dish had a story attached. A small copper serving dish appeared with three small cones – a tuile cookie – filled with reconstituted fava beans that the chef had put up the previous season. The top of each was dusted with toasted acorns that he had foraged last fall.
Each item was discussed in some detail. The details were much appreciated because most of us had never seen anything like it. One of the early courses was a wild Atlantic salmon “bacon”, presented with the comment that it was “Martha’s favorite dish”. I made the mistake of challenging Chef Baehrel about the “wild” Atlantic salmon part of the story, suggesting that Atlantic salmon were not allowed to be harvested in the wild, that he probably meant it was a Pacific salmon, or was it perhaps farm raised? He assured me that it was wild Atlantic salmon. I was not convinced, but I assured myself that I was not eating an endangered fish, and enjoyed every morsel. When the chef reappeared to clear the dishes he told me that he had called his fish monger, and had been reassured of the fact that they were indeed Atlantic salmon. My first thought was – Where is he getting commercially caught Atlantic salmon? My second thought was – Who is this guy that can reach his fish monger on a Saturday night at eight o’clock? It got better. The fish monger called back with the provenance of the fish- which it turned out had been netted by an Indian tribe in Labrador under an exemption granted to indigenous Inuits. Damon was satisfied, I was amazed, and forever more will be known at the Basement Bistro as the “Salmon Police”.
More plates showed up in carefully staged succession. A mushroom soup was constructed of wild wood ear mushrooms that had been collected in the woods surrounding the house, and were topped with kernels of corn that Damon had smoked with the apple wood trimmings from the last pruning. Following this? A platter of charcuterie soon appeared, with slivers of house prepared bresaola, venison speck finished with a light smoking after curing, and a goose and turkey sopressata. Damon also showed off his cheese making skills with a plate of cheeses including a local goat milk chevre, and a camembert.
The chef’s skill at preserving food, especially vegetables, was most impressive, and was what allowed him to serve “locally grown” offerings throughout the year. Corn is tough to come by in January. Rutabaga reductions are utilized in many of the preparations. Little or no sugar showed up in anything; instead Chef Baehrel grows stevia in the garden to be used as a sweetener. Our courses included heirloom carrots and tomatoes, snap peas, swiss chard, numerous squashes and roasted brussel sprouts. One single course included four servings of different meat and game – a confit of duck finished with a powder of wild sumac, a slice of pork loin wrapped in a venison cured bacon, lamb finished with lavender and caramelized onions. It sounds like a tremendous amount of food, but the courses were spaced out just enough to make you anticipate the next course. A sorbet intermezzo helped too, created using one of the dozen or so grape varieties that are cultivated on the property. We finished with another platter of homemade cheeses, a tray of pastries and a chocolate ganache served in oversized shot glasses.
To say dining here is a culinary adventure is not hyperbole. The only similar experience I have had in a restaurant was at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, NY. Similar but not comparable. The chef’s tasting menu is currently priced on the site at $105. (Blue Hill was $150) If you are able to secure a reservation, I assure you it will be a wonderful experience and worth every penny. I suspect that reservations might be “easier” to come by if you book the entire seating – with a dozen or more people. I really can’t imagine how the chef could orchestrate as much as he does if he had multiple parties in the dining room at the same time. If you do get in, please consider bringing my friend Steven with you. And me.