776 Route 45, Earlton, NY
Our group was lucky enough to return to the Basement Bistro today, compliments of our friend Joel, who seems to be able to secure reservations where mere mortals cannot. Eight of us (including our friend Steven who had spent two years on the restaurant’s reservation waiting list) spent four hours at our table attended to by Chef Proprietor Damon Baehrel. As is his custom, there was no one else in the restaurant to assist. He acts as chef, waiter, sommelier and all of the surrounding support cast that goes with running a restaurant. He is the whole enchilada.
Since I have had the opportunity to dine at Basement Bistro a few times, I had the luxury of relaxing a little, and took the time to really enjoy the whole experience. The first few times that you dine at the restaurant you can be so overwhelmed that you can miss half of what is going on. Every dish will probably be a totally new experience, so it takes a few times to be able to settle back and observe all of the moving parts. Since we only had eight people today, and the restaurant was technically closed, Damon had more time than usual to relax and chat with us. His story is quite fascinating.
The Basement Bistro is situated, as the name suggests, in the basement of Damon and his wife Elizabeth’s house. It sits on an eleven acre farm, which also houses a catering operation, and an outbuilding which serves as a production facility and TV film studio. The eleven acres are planted with everything that you will see on your table. In addition to the cultivated crops and gardens, Damon forages the surrounding woods for wild herbs, mushrooms, acorns – anything that he might find a use for in the kitchen. The theme of the restaurant – which I only now am beginning to appreciate – is to serve what he can produce from those eleven acres. He does supplement items like seafood and meats – which are carefully sourced from trusted purveyors – but the bulk of the items that appear on your table were planted, harvested and prepared by Chef Baehrel. This mission – to maximize a sustainable business from those eleven acres – is his one and only ambition. He has no desire to expand to larger quarters and cash in on his immense popularity. (There are over 2,000 people on the waiting list for a reservation.) He seeks not the fame or recognition (or riches) that the media wish to bestow on him. A bigger venue in Vegas or New York would not work with the offerings of his eleven acre farm. In this age of celebrity chefs and reality kitchen shows Chef Baehrel, arguably one of the best of his generation, just wants to work his farm in Earlton, serve dinner to twenty people in his basement, and get up tomorrow and do it all over again. It is what he does; it is all he does, but what he does – is extraordinary.
The meal starts with an introduction by the chef, and an explanation of how the meal will take shape. You are asked to prepare for four hours of dining, and approximately ten to twelve courses. There is no menu. Damon explains for the newcomers why there is no menu. There used to be a menu, but in Damon’s mind diners were passing on the most interesting selections and ordering the safe standbys. He decided that the best way to encourage everyone to try the interesting menu selections – the reason he was there in the first place – was to eliminate the choice. So no more menu. Whatever is in season will be on your table. Whatever charcuterie he has hanging will find its way to your plate. If the grapes are ripe, a juice will be pressed, a sorbet prepared, and an intermezzo will appear in front of you. If the fiddle-heads are budding,or the asparagus is just the right size, or some morels suddenly appeared near the compost pile, that will be part of today’s menu. Tomorrow will be different. Every visit will be different. Of the dozen courses we saw today, I had only seen two similar dishes on previous visits.
A table in the dining room contained plates of herbs that the chef used to demonstrate how many of the dishes would be prepared. Salt was used sparingly. A juice extracted from pine needles was utilized in many dishes instead. Stevia was grown to be used as a sugar substitute. Rutabaga stock filled in for butter. None of this is “gimmicky” or done for show. It grows on his eleven acres, therefore he will find a way to use it. It works.
We started with two bottles of wine that Chef Baehrel had selected for us, at Joel’s request. The white was a Savigny Les Beaune, a crisp minerally chardonnay that would pair well with the numerous seafood courses. The red selected was a Bourgogne Rouge Pinot Noir from Bouchard. Neither were extraordinary or expensive but they served their purpose well. The dishes that Chef Baehrel creates are subtle dishes with hints of wild herbs, or vegetable juices with just an essence of flavor. Anything bigger than the pinot noir would have overwhelmed many of the dishes. The focus is on the food, and only the food. Everything about the place will focus your attention on the plate in front of you. No paintings hang on the wall to divert your attention and since you are in a basement there are no windows. No music plays in the background.
After pouring the wine Damon disappeared into the kitchen to retrieve baskets of freshly made bread which he served with his own home made butter and a small carafe of oil. The oil was a blend of his own grape seed oil to which he had added a small amount of olive oil. See my earlier post on the Basement Bistro for more detail about their bread. It would be the best course at most other restaurants.
A succession of appetizers followed, including a plate of the chef’s own home made cheeses. Damon now makes thirty different cheeses at the restaurant, which would be a signature achievement for most kitchens. The offerings included a Camembert, a goat milk chevre, and a bleu cheese served with a compote made from locally grown peaches. On the same plate was a charcuterie selection, including house-made salamis, and a goose and guinea hen sausage. The charcuterie was often cured not with salt, which is the traditional agent, but with reduction of pine needle juice, which has enough acidity to process the raw meats over time. How the chef came by this process would be an article unto itself, I am sure. In the center of the plate was a wild day lily, which had been battered and baked in the style of a zucchini blossom. The next course was a cone shaped tuile cookie filled with fava bean cream. The cones were served in a copper kettle filled with pepper corns, the cones stuck in the peppercorns. This was one of the two courses that we had seen before, and the chef says that is a customer favorite. It has certainly become one of ours.
We then were served the first of our seafood courses. The fish monger had stopped in the morning with some Maine lobster, and some Maine rock crab. The chef had first prepared a poaching broth by juicing some lovage and some garlic scape – the green shoots on fresh garlic. He poached the lobster meat in the broth briefly. Then he took some parsley root, and blended it with some crushed oak acorns from last falls’ harvest. In a small demitasse cup he placed a small piece of the poached lobster, on top of the acorn parsley mix. It was just incredible. Obviously this is one of those items that if it were on a menu most people would pass on, and this was just the point that Damon was trying to make earlier. We probably would not have tried it if it were not put in front of us. It turned out to be most people’s favorite dish.
Next came some Copper River salmon, first cured in a dandelion brine, then smoked over apricot branches. The morsel was served in a bath of sorrel and Adirondack potatoes. Each piece was covered with a few sprigs of sorrel. It was just fantastic. The Maine rock crab was also poached, but served topped with a puree made from fiddle head ferns. (You read that right.)
Next up was the second dish that we had seen before, and we were so glad to see it again. The chef had taken the morels mentioned earlier, and made a mushroom soup. He added kernels of fresh corn that had been smoked with lemon thyme branches. I know this sounds convoluted but the combination is wonderful. A mushroom soup made with morels is possibly the most decadent mushroom soup ever made. The kernels of smoked corn are intensely sweet, and savory at once. The heat caramelizes the sugar in the corn. The juxtaposition of flavors is truly amazing.
Next came a brief break, with a sorbet made from sumac flowers, rhubarb, and grape syrup from one of the dozen or so grape varieties that the chef cultivates on the property. A plate of asparagus showed up next, poached in parsnip water, topped with a sauce made from cardoons, or artichoke thistle. Sprinkled around the plate were toasted shelled pumpkin seeds. We all sat there picking every last seed off of the plate. Nothing was going back to the kitchen.
The meat course followed with three offerings on each plate. They were accompanied by a puree of carrots, and a sautee of stinging nettles. Yes, those stinging nettles. The first meat, a grass fed eye round was, I first thought, a curious choice. Eye round is typically a tough cut of meat, but the chef had prepared it as a slow roast, at 145 degrees, for hours – almost a su vide style of cooking. A pork loin was also slow roasted like a pulled pork, after first being cured in a pine needle brine. The meat almost fell apart when you touched it. The last piece was my favorite – a chicken thigh prepared as confit, served in a sauce of golden burdock. Whenever I think I have my confit technique down pat, someone comes along to show me I am totally clueless.
A desert and cheese course was the final offering. It included a French farmers cheese, a sheep milk bleu, a brie, and a dry salted ricotta. Also on the plate was a strawberry sorbet, and a chocolate and beet puree topped with a wild strawberry. The first mulberries of the season were offered with a candied sunflower seed brittle. We were all out of room.
Great restaurants come in three flavors. The first can competently produce classic dishes. Most of my favorite places are in this category. Others offer variations on those themes. They offer a new twist on a traditional preparation or recipe. And then you have a place like the Basement Bistro. These dishes are not classic preparations or even grounded in classic techniques. They are not variations on classic themes. These dishes are totally original, totally new, completely “outside the box”. When we were done my seven dinner companions – all of whom are well traveled seasoned restaurant regulars – all agreed. This was the best meal that any of us had ever had. Anywhere.