Wednesday, August 1, 2012

DAMON BAEHREL, 1st course.

I recently had a meal that can only be described as epic. It was a 5-hour, 14-course experience that I will attempt to document in stages, one dish at a time, since nobody can truly process it all in one sitting. I know I couldn’t.

After almost two years on a waiting list, our number finally came up. We booked a room in a bed-and-breakfast in upstate New York and made the three-hour pilgrimmage.
Damon Baehrel is a one-man show. On his 12-acre home in Earlton, New York, nestled in the Catskills, he has, for over 20 years, run a small restaurant out of his basement. Until recently, it was simply called The Basement Bistro, but now the restaurant bears only his own name.
Baehrel grows his own vegetables, forages for wild herbs, flowers and roots, taps his own trees, presses his own oil, grinds his own flour, makes his own cheese, and cures his own meat. On top of that, he creates his own radically inventive dishes, and – oh yes, he alone functions as the entire waitstaff. Call him eccentric or call him obsessed; either way, the man has a calling.
Everything we ate came from his property, except some meat and dairy products from a farm down the road, some seafood shipped live from Halifax, wine from Europe and sea salt from New England. That means that certain staples one has come to expect at every fine meal, like olive oil, black pepper, cane sugar, and other exotic tastes we have come to regard as our own, were inventively replaced by local substitutes.

Most ingredients are highly seasonal (some available merely several days a year), but some are preserved, pickled, dried or otherwise stored from seasons past.The restaurant had just finished a large lunch seating of almost 2 dozen people, and had a another dozen coming for a 10PM seating. Yet as chance would have it, we arrived at 5 PM to discover that the restaurant would be ours alone for the duration.  We felt like royalty, being pampered with such individual attention by the harvester/chef/waiter.
 The chef started us off not with a pitcher of water, but of iced sap from his birch and maple trees, flavored with crisp cucumbers. The sap was very watery and light, and had only a hint of a sweet, mineral taste. We began with a lovely Languedoc sparkling wine, Sainte-Hilaire 2010.
Two types of bread: focaccia brushed with grapeseed oil and specked with sea salt, ramp powder and garlic scapes, and also a round loaf made with homegrown wheat and white bean flour. Served with two kinds of local, sweet spring butter, including an incredible sheep butter with lavender. Oh, and by the way, the grapeseed oil is flavored with spruce shoots, cedar berries and wild tarragon.

Finally, it begins! The first of 14 courses to arrive was a beautifully presented wild violet ice, flavored intensely with grape powder and grape leaf powder, and sweetened with stevia leaf extract. The garnish was rhubarb powder.

Thirteen courses to go. Stay tuned!


David said...

This sounds amazing. I ate once at French Laundry years ago when a friend dragged me along. I had no idea what I was getting into. But this frankly sounds even more interesting.

Tai said...

On the edge of my seat! More, please!

Laura K said...

Jeff- just left the Adirondacks and would love to try the sap water with cucumbers. The maple sugar producers said that people drank this stuff while they were working to quench their thirst. We talked with naturalists who said that preparing herbs can take a lot of time- washing and drying, washing again- which gave me a lot of appreciation for guys like this.
looking forward to the next installations.