Yup….it’s my birthday. I’m a summer baby who adores the sun, the color orange and the sweltering heat of the city in August. I’ve had a pretty wonderful summer so far…for instance, I’ve really expanded my aquatic horizons .…at this juncture in August, I’ve swum in a beautiful pond in the Berkshires, the Wind River in Wyoming , the Gulf of Naples and had a float trip down the Snake River. Everything but a chlorine pool! My son, who is 16, is away at camp – the very same sleep away camp he has been going to since he’s 8 years old. This summer he’s a counselor, in charge of a bunch of younger boys, and so I have less communication with him. The one thing I really want for my birthday is to see him –even just for a half hour- just to eyeball his face, make sure he’s eating enough, maybe hear about some of the adventures he’s willing to tell me about and speculate about the adventures he is not telling me about.
Through all the summers his dad and I have been traveling up to camp, we’ve noticed a small, understated sign about 10 minutes before we turn into the camp road that proclaims “ The Basement Bistro,” and under that, “Sagecrest Catering” with a small arrow indicating a left hand turn. One summer, we decided to try and wait out the traffic back to the city by getting a bite to eat. That’s when I remembered the sign. We called the restaurant and got a lovely man who gently but firmly told us that most people make reservations for The Bistro a year in advance. My interest was piqued. He explains that the restaurant is actually in the chef’s finished basement, and that he only serves between 6-12 people during an evening. When an invitation comes from my first cousin Suzanne and her husband Tom to visit their summer home in the Berkshires during my birthday weekend , a master plan starts to formulate. On the day of my birth, I want to visit my son first, and then try and get a reservation at The Basement Bistro for a celebratory feast. I put this task in the more than capable hands of my boyfriend who has got a talent for bringing out the best in people and making them do things they might not ordinarily do, like add an extra seating to a restaurant’s evening schedule. Sure enough, in 2/12 weeks,through patience and fortitude, he snags us a rez on my actual birthday for a 5PM seating, that they have specially added.
And so my special day unfolds with a trip upstate to the tiny town of Earlton, N.Y. where I happily spend 45 minutes with my son who is lounging in Spongebob pajama bottoms with his young charges. He looks great and is happy at work…so we pile back in the car and drive ten minutes back down the road, arriving a few minutes before 5PM in front of a closed gate. We climb out of the car, confused , but are soon given an explanation by the gentleman who lives across the road that the chef never opens the gate before he is ready to receive his guests. Then the gentleman proceeds to let us know that he is Jules Baehrel, the father of the chef and our official welcoming committee. We hear that Jules’ son started learning his craft at his mother’s knee, baking apple pies. Although it is lovely standing there on the country road in the late afternoon, hunger and curiousity soon overtake us, as we see the gate to the magic kingdom rise. Driving onto the property, we see abundance and fecundity everywhere,from the trees groaning with fruit to the beautiful flowers, to the vegetables and herbs growing in profusion.
From the shadows of this basement restaurant, bounces Damon Baehrel, the chef, the sole waiter, the gardener, baker, the maker of the charcuterie, the sommelier, the cheese and butter maker, and apparently the maitre ‘d. The restaurant, opened in 1989 as a showcase for the catering company, is a finished basement, inside Damon’s home and seats about 12-16 people maximum. Damon looks a little like Steve Carell and is startlingly energetic for someone who sleeps only 3 hours a night.
In the middle of the room, is a long groaning board of some of the items we’ll be eating tonight, things the chef has grown, gathered or preserved and Damon starts off the evening by greeting the 6 lucky people that will be dining this evening at this special seating. Inside, I have the feeling that we are at the beginning of a journey, rich and resonant with not only flavor, but also history, science and philosophy. These are my favorite type of meals – leisurely, full of the tastes of the season and of the terroir –food at the peak of its flavor, being masterfully manipulated by an inventive, creative chef rooted in tradition. Damon eagerly shows us all the basket of golden fava beans, the bluefoot mushrooms that he foraged that very morning, the sumac, smoked juniper berries, pine needles, cattails, lemon cucumbers ,and the summer squash that has already been sliced into the individual pitchers of well water on our tables. As we sit, entranced, listening to him, we admire our well-appointed table, set out with 2 kinds of homemade bread, a flatbread with herbs and garlic and a peasant bread studded with seeds, small porcelain ramekins of two butters made that day: goat butter, studded with tiny thyme flowers and yellow cow’s butter. Later on, Damon will tell us that the color of this cow butter is different than the color of the butter last week, because of what the cows were eating. Meanwhile, I’m swooning over the taste of the goat butter, which I have never had in my life. It’s light and tangy and looks a little like Crisco, but is oh so much better for you.
Our first taste is a little teaser course of a sugar–free sorbet scoop on a porcelain soup spoon. It’s comprised of 90% fresh squeezed grape juice ( from Damon’s grapes of course) and 10% of a reduced stevia tea syrup. My whole mouth and palate awaken to this burst of fruit, which is icy and not too sweet. It takes the place of a cold glass of Prosecco or a Campari and orange as an appetite awakener. (not that my appetite ever needs awakening-the slightest nudge and I’m a ravenous beast) Speaking of Prosecco, at this point Damon brings over the rather large wine list, which on first glance is beautifully put together, well priced, with many French and American bottles. Since it is after all a celebration of my birth,we want to splurge a wee bit. Before we can do our mental gymnastics with how much we can in all good conscience afford, Damon casually regales us with the news,”By the way, EVERYTHING on this list is available by the glass.”
After we got up off the floor, my mind raced with questions-like, “where is the cruvinet the size of Rhode Island you must have to accommodate all this drinking by the glass?? and mainly “What do you do with the leftover wine?” Damon cheerfully fields my query with the twinkling response that he drinks it all in the back kitchen. Without further ado, we order two glasses of my favorite white wine in the world, Chassagne – Montrachet, an elegant white Burgundy. By now, my partner Harry and I are seriously wondering if we are in a mutual dream, or if perhaps we have died in a car crash, like the couple in Beetlejuice, and have awakened together in this basement paradise. Here is Damon Baehrel as genial host of heaven. ( If it’s hell…I dont even care. This is one charming Devil)
The first course arrives and it takes our breath away- a colorful platter of the best of Damon’s charcuterie and cheeses and for my partner, a vegetarian version of the same. I’ve got guineafowl pepperoni, goose pepperoni, a bit of housemade speck ham, a tiny ball of goat chevre, a bit of pickled peach preserve, baby corn ,the last of the summer peas, 3 different housemade cheeses, a tempura battered nasturtium leaf with a pink sauce and three different powders at the bottom of the plate. One is a green eggplant powder made….how??? Various fresh herbs and blossoms garnish the plate. The flavors pop and complement one another. Damon comes over to refill our wine glasses saying, “That wasn’t quite a full glass.”
Next out , a beautiful copper pot filled with different peppercorns and sticking out of the middle, two “ice cream cones” made of a beautiful buttery tuile folded into a cone shape, with a puree of golden fava beans scooped inside. The “ice cream” topping is a sprinkling of toasted hickory nuts from the property.
After this, an extra cold course, a peachwood smoked wild salmon with a sour sauce made from cattails and wild sorrel oil. A julienne of sorrel lies atop the small dish. Meanwhile, Damon keeps filling our glasses with Chassagne -Montrachet saying “I guess it takes a whole bottle to fill these two glasses.” Well, I guess it does in this magical place we’ve found in the middle of the country.
Totally in the spirit now, (and spirits!) we move on to a half bottle of a muscular and peppery 2006 Argyle Reserve Pinot Noir. With that, comes a crab stuffed pumpkin blossom for me with a kohlrabi sauce and some fiddlehead fern powder on the plate. The crab is from Nova Scotia and has been poached in turnip water for sweetness. I have to wonder what its like to live with this guy (what’s his underwear drawer like, for instance?)…this is beyond the beyond as far as any farm to table restaurant I’ve been in…and the preparations are as elaborate as any I’ve had the good fortune to experience from top notch places like Per Se or Babbo or The French Kitchen. Also nestled cozily on the plate is a plump Nova Scotia prawn perched on what is one of the most delicious preparations of cabbage I have ever tasted. It is a smoked cedarberry cabbage that has been cooked down and down to a melty, buttery consistency. Cabbage contains mustard oils that break down into some pretty smelly sulfurous compounds when heated. This is why I think many people are reticent to eat this vegetable. ( and then there’s the farting) This particular preparation was so heavenly, as to be addictive. If Damon Buehrel was as interested in becoming famous, as many other talented chefs that will remain nameless are, then this cabbage would be jarred and marketed in your local Gristedes or Safeway before you could say “Wolfgang Puck.”
At this juncture, our thought bubbles peacefully float above us , our wine glasses are full and our fragile bodies tremble at the thought of the superhuman next course. As the wine, the ambiance and the company open other horizons in our conversation, my dearest dining partner comes to the brilliant realization that Damon’s cuisine is in fact an Americanized version of the Japanese art of kaisieki –The original flavor of this fresh food speaks for itself, plates are elaborately designed to send a message that we are literally “eating the season.” Everything is done, in meticulous detail, with the focus and purpose of enhancing the unadorned taste of the ingredients. Damon has given his guests a short bio and has mentioned that he did study French technique with French chefs. According to Damon, it “taught him what not to do.” He mentions, for instance that he rarely if ever thickens anything with butter or cream, but rather with rutabaga.
(which immediately reminds me of Frank Zappa’s song “Call Any Vegetable” ) Some of his dishes also incorporate the intricate chemistry of molecular gastronomy. But the cuisine that emerges is uniquely American and specifically from this little slice of Heaven we call Earlton, NY.
What’s this? Another of Damon’s phenomenal sorbets…this time a sweet and sour cherry one. Its sweet, but then the sweetness stops dead in its tracks and the delicious sour cherry flavor explodes in the mouth.
The rains have miraculously brought late-in-the-season tiny asparagus,which Damon has poached in parsnip water. ( I have to try this at home) The parsnip water provides a spicy, herbaceous note to the already deliciously tender stalks. The sauce is one of pickled cardoons (WHA??) and the plate is strewn artistically with roasted white pumpkin seeds and beet powder. For my vegetarian partner, Damon has prepared a special treat of a Jerusalem artichokes, layered like a savory napoleon with bluefoot mushrooms. There is a pioneer sensibility we are starting to notice in this whole evening’s presentation. Nothing is wasted. Everything is respected. This is the Native American spirit. A small red Le Creuset pot arrives for each of us…inside a purée of bluefoot mushroom foraged that morning and crowned by a mound of smoked corn.
Third bottle arrives. ( Hey!! It’s my birthday) 2002 Gevrey- Chambertin, 1er Cru. Red wine like this definitely improves with age as far as I’m concerned. The older I get, the better I like it 8-) I’m preparing for the meat course’s imminent arrival at our table.
Grass-fed warm beef salad, using the eye-round, a sumac chicken, which has been brined and is as good as any barbeque I’ve had in the South and a mound of pulled pork, cooked with pine needles, vegetable broth and pear, for sweetness. A golden yellow burdock sauce lends its creamy flavor and color to the plate. The fish eaters version of this platter is equally luscious. More wild salmon, more of the insanely addictive smoked cedarberry cabbage, and a layered potato presentation with the golden yellow burdock sauce as the crown. My partner’s dietary needs are perfectly accommodated, and as a bonus, he gets a lovely side dish of nettles. ( I know that sounds like some Grimm’s Fairy Tale nasty bizness..but trust me..if you like the tang of bitter greens, then nettles are quite toothsome.) With every new course, Damon explains the ingredients and the preparation, freely giving away his secrets, unlike any other chef I’ve come across. This is the kind of pure, generous and exuberant joy that I admire.
Damon pops by our table between courses and reveals a little about himself,spurred on by our questioning. Several fascinating facts emerge….he was at one time a musician, then he started a catering company, he is married with an autistic son and he is not in the least interested in becoming famous because he knows that would be the end of what he does with such passion and personal attention. There is also no music in the bistro… as Robert Fripp once said “Music is the wine that fills the cup of silence” But in this basement space, the music is in our mouths, in our eyes, filling our brainpans with sensation and washing over our compliant bodies.
Dessert. We cant believe that hours have gone by…we arrived at 5PM, not really knowing what to expect, and now it is a bit after 8:30PM.
First comes cheese, which is perfection for buddying up with the bit of Burgundy that is left. Five homemade cheeses arrive on a white platter, decorated meticulously with fresh herbs that are bursting with aroma : Brie, ricotta salata, a strong Gorgonzola-like cheese,2 types of cheddar. It is the masterful work of a miniature painter-and it’s astounding to us that every table is also getting this same beautiful platter with only ONE person in the kitchen. My birthday dessert buffet arrives with a little candle in one of the items and just enough fanfare. Items are both frozen and warm, for a contrast. Roasted peach gelato with wild spearmint, fresh fruits, a roasted wild strawberry purée on top of a homemade pastry, something made of pine nuts caramelized together like a brittle and the crowning achievement…a work of pure evil genius: a chocolate and beet purée that is so scrumptious I have to lick the glass.
Talk about a range of knowledge…mycology, organic farming, oenology, biochemistry, a masterful command of the care and feeding of humans. I think, “this guy walks the walk and talks the talk of the kind of “farm to table” restaurant cooking and sustainable agriculture practices that other people just write about or only do halfway. I long to probe the way his brain works as he organizes all of this beauty, want to look at his schedule to see how often the goat butter gets made, when he turns the cheeses and injects the Gorgonzola with mold, how he invents some of these astounding preparations, how he makes time to forage, how he makes every single guest feel special. The way people, especially artists organize their lives, has always fascinated me. It suggests an certain internal logic and spatial sense.
It is now 9:15PM and Damon is receiving another seating at 10:30 PM that will go till 2 or 3 in the morning. It’s hard to grasp how he does this.
All I know is that I have witnessed some high culinary art and some serious personal integrity -I’m glowing with the whole experience of being fed, educated, inspired and pampered all at once. What a birthday!! What a chance to leave all worries behind for a few hours and just bask in someone else’s creative worldview.
We carefully wend our way back to our local bed and breakfast, with the resonances of the meal reverberating within us. and after this birthday dinner, I feel the best is yet to come.
I leave you all with my dear father’s toast…”Here’s looking up your address”
THE BASEMENT BISTRO
DAMON BAEHREL CHEF/OWNER
776 ROUTE 45
EARLTON, NY 12058