I am constantly asked, “Miss Eydie, how do I enhance the pleasures of my everday life?” Well… one pathway certainly is surprise,spontaneity and adventure: the “not-knowing” aspect which mobilizes one’s deepest and most primitive instincts for reaction. Another equally valid approach is knowledge; take love for instance. The face of a dear one made more beautiful by the act of loving him or her, of “knowing ” them. A piece of music made more evocative by knowing the process that created it. How we experience an object or know of its hidden nature is an integral part of the pleasure. When I understand an object or an experience more thoroughly and understand its history, it has more depth and consequentially,more levels of pleasure. There is an element of the pleasure quotient for me that is tied to the knowledge of where things came from, and to the artistry involved in presenting them.
And so..this leads me to the recollection in words and pictures of this year’s birthday dinner at The Basement Bistro,which scaled the heights of Mt. Enjoyable and went way beyond . The Basement Bistro, in case, dear reader, you did not peruse my blog of last summer, is a tiny, 6-table establishment in Earlton, N.Y. Run by the extraordinary and unique Damon Baehrel in his basement, this restaurant takes the words “farm to table,” and wrings them inside out till they bleed. I am a big fan of Thomas Keller and Dan Barber ( Blue Hill in NYC being one of my favorite resturants in the country for special celebrations) and I think Chef Damon is right up there with these guys in the creative chops department. As I mentioned in the last blog, he is the chef, the baker, the waiter, the cheese and buttermaker, the sommelier, the gardener, makes the charcuterie, and forages for the local ingredients. Our party this year, also including two dear friends with whom I cook throughout the year, pulls up to the gate dutifully at 4:45 PM, in time to wish Damon’s dad hello and give him a jar of Wyoming honey.
This year there were more hints of molecular gastronomy, but the basic theme of home grown or foraged ingredients masterfully and simply prepared was still securely in place. Where the knowledge part of the pleasure quotient comes in for me is Chef Damon’s passionate,thoughtful lectures about the ingredients and processes of his cuisine. I don’t know any other chef who is so generous and open in this aspect. Of course that is a function of him staying small and manageable in order to personally have this interaction with his customers…and that, precisely, is what is unique about this place. It is Chef Damon’s actual presence and hands on attention to every detail .
We enter the basement to much genuine hello-ing and hugging from the chef, and our eyes feast upon the groaning board full of the ingredients he will use in our 14-course tasting menu tonight. There are large cattails, acorns and acorn flour, sumac, golden fava flour, hickory nuts, juniper berries, wild grapes, hickory bark, birch and maple saps, garlic scapes, peaches and white mulberries. There is only one other table tonight for our seating, so we park ourselves in the back of the room in order to get the full unobstructed view of the proceedings. And also so we can get loud, make out if we choose, and/or crawl under the table if necessary. Our table is beautifully set, as it was last year ,with homemade bread and two kinds of butter, this year cow and sheep. This year there is also homemade grapeseed oil, the bottle stuffed with fresh herbs and lavender buds. How in the world do you press the oil out of a tiny grape seed? Is it similar to squeezing water from a stone? Some kind of Biblical miracle?
Oh wait…did I mention that our friend Sue fell off a roof, shattered a vertebra, and still made it to dinner? Soon,she will be be feeling no pain and literally weeping with joy at the beauty of the food.
As for me…I am pondering what “garlic scapes” could possibly be.
We’re taking it all in …and then suddenly the first taste arrives. …a gorgeous scoop of one of Damon’s “ice creations.” Taking his fresh pressed grape juice from his own grapes, he then adds them to a raisin juice, also from his own grapes, that he has reconstituted. Kind of goofily backwards, but it works. To this he adds a concentrated stevia tea syrup. This sorbet is set off by a single leaf of lemon balm. It’s gorgeous to look at, but oh my, when the first icy burst of pure grape flavor hits the palate , it awakens the ghost of all grapes past and makes you think about your experiences with the phony grape flavor in all that candy you ate as a child, wine, raisins, currants, and all the mythology surrounding grapes: their fleshiness,their seeds,their ability to metamorphosize into vinegar, their resveratrol, their leaves. You are washed in a godly flood of grapeness.
What I’m saying is that this food demands that you think. Well…maybe not “demands” but certainly asks politely and firmly. It’s not just about the taste and the animal pleasure of satisfying hunger.
Time to pick a first bottle of wine. Damon has already served us a glass of sparkling wine that he likes, but I am too much of a Champagne snob to pay it much mind. Too sour and lean for my taste…I go more for the creamy, refined and toasty flavors with the tiniest of bubbles to tickle the nose. If Champagne is the wine of romance and seduction then this sparkler has struck out with me. Besides….I’ve got bigger fish to fry…
We let Damon pick the first bottle since he knows what we are going to eat and we don’t. Knowing I adore white Burgundy…he picks a winner: a 2007 Premier-Cru St. Aubin. Still a white Burgundy, vineyards located next to Chassagne-Montrachet, mostly 100% chardonnay grapes, and here’s the best part…. less expensive than the well-known white Burgundys like Montrachet, Chablis and the magnificent, nuanced Corton-Charlemagne.
The first appetizer is Damon’s presentation of some of his house-made charcuterie and cheeses along with some preserves, vegetables and herbs. We each rip off some of the bread, and I dip into the sheep butter which is laced with summer tarragon.
The plate is lovingly set out with a slice each of goose pepperoni (the secret is a spicy tomato powder!), dried guinea hen sausage with garlic and sage, and a spring lamb sausage . To the side of these are a slice of pork prosciutto and a slice of duck breast. A tiny baby carrot nestles into a nasturtium-leaf nest of flax paste, sorrel oil and tomato oil, which gives the paste a lovely light orange hue . The cheeses are a 3 month-old blue cheese from cow’s milk, an aged camembert made from both cow and sheep milk and garnished with dried cantaloupe seeds, and a pickled peach preserve. Finally there is an adorable ball of goat’s milk chevre in a puddle of pickled mulberries. On top is a tiny flower which Damon tells us would turn to a bean tomorrow if not picked today. Miraculous! Such timing!
At the bottom of each plate there is a whimsical face constructed from tender baby peas, an oo-la-la French bean moustache, and a green powder that is yummy (but I can’t remember what it is). My darling partner in all things has a fishy version of this platter with a chunky tuna tartare on top of sliced cucumbers instead of the charcuterie.
Next up… a tempura concoction, beautifully battered in fava bean flour. It is, inexplicably, not fried. I’m remembering that this was a leaf of some kind and plated with a rutabaga emulsion (that’s how Damon thickens his sauces…not with butter or cream), tiny fennel fronds and some of that good grapeseed oil. I believe Sue and I were photographed licking our plates after this course.
By this time, the first bottle has been drained dry. But here’s the part when you think you’re in a dream: Damon comes over with a fresh,cold bottle of the same St Aubin and cheerfully says, “Oh by the way,I forgot to tell you it’s two-for-one night.”
Some crazy molecular gastronomy comes to the table next: a ” phony egg.” The “yolk” turns out to be a sweet little tomato poached in parsnip water. The white is, unbelievably, cooked cattail shoots that have a sour note injected into them by adding wood sorrel juice. The “pepper” is dried, ground hickory nuts. And the little bit of “bacon,” if memory serves me, was actually dried hickory bark. There is clearly some dehydrating apparatus back in the kitchen/laboratory where the powders are secretly readied.
By now, mid-course in my second visit, I am noticing a structure in the tasting menu…there are certain patterns in the development of the sequencing, and then some seasonal changes and variations on a theme . One of my very favorite items from last year now comes out, to a chorus of oohs and aahs from our table: a gleaming copper pot, filled with mixed peppercorns and acorns and in the middle, sticking out, are two “ice cream cones.” Except they’re not…they are in fact rolled tuiles of red acorn flour, egg white, butter and parsley essence. The “ice cream” is flageolet beans ( the caviar of beans!) cooked for 3 hours in birch sap …and then pureed and chilled to scoop onto the cone. Mmmmm..sweet and savory tension. The nuts on top of the cone are toasted ground hickory nuts.
There is some discussion of truffle oil at this point, and Damon enters the conversation with an astounding fact about the male green eggplant (color me ignorant about eggplant sex) and the powder you can make from said eggplant by dehydrating, to be used as a “truffle substitute.” We have a lively debate about overratedness of truffle oil and the fact that most of it is a chemical extract infused into an inferior olive oil. Also under discussion is the ongoing phenomenon of chef as celebrity .Awww..who cares ? It’s time for the first of three seafood courses.
Lawdy! A small porcelain dish arrives with chunks of twice-poached Nova Scotian lobster meat and also some lovage (an under used celery-like herb), wild dandelion root cooked in black birch stock, and some other ingredients that Damon rattles off faster than a vocalese solo. For my partner, Harry, the chef completely mirrors the tastes of my dish, but without using the lobster and substituting bull’s blood beets. Just hearing the expression “bull’s blood” makes us want to order some red wine, as we escalate into the meatier portion of the meal. Much discussion 0n this and the winner is Santenay, a spicy gem of a red Burgundy. The grape is pinot noir and that should make everyone happy .
A gorgeous crab stuffed pumpkin blossom is next with a sauce of kohlrabi, the core of the broccoli, asparagus and some fiddlehead fern powder. Yes …it’s very green. The crab has just arrived that morning and tastes of the sea.The vegetarian version has nettles and potatoes with the same sauce.
Our third beauty queen? Newfoundland rock shrimp sweetly roasted in carrot juice.To the left of this, some of the best cole slaw ever, made with cardoon vinegar, cardoons being the thistle-like, high maintenance vegetable essential for the Italian dish bagna cauda. To the right, a preparation we experienced last summer, a smoky cedarberry cabbage that has been cooked down to a melt in your mouth consistency. FORGET “SURF AND TURF”…THIS IS “SURF AND EARTH.”
By this time…we are well into our cups and Sue has completely forgotten about her broken back. Paul has declared the experience “shocking.” The meat and vegetable courses are coming and we order another Burgundy…a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin to compare to the Santenay.The Gevrey grapes are grown in limestone, and contrasted with the Santenay, seem to have a more laser-like and focused character. I am growing less laser-like by the moment but happily so.
Before the meat, though, another sorbet to refresh…this time, grape, sumac tea, blackberry juice and summer tarragon for a refreshing hit of liquorice.
Damon gets his meat and poultry from a farm of which he is part owner, and we get a sampling of some of his incredible poultry for the next course: a “bluefoot” chicken thigh brined in sumac powder, and a pine needle brined turkey thigh pressed into a loaf, both meats tender as a confit and bathed in a golden wild burdock root sauce. So satisfying.
We all agree we need to show some restraint, but then we forget we said this, so we order a final bottle in a trio of great reds: a Chateau Canuet Margaux from Bordeaux. This wine was a great lady, full of suppleness, deep color, and an elegant odor, not unlike I would like to think of myself at this point in the evening. I certainly had turned quite a deep color and was supple to the point of Gumbyesque . Not sure about the odor, but I’m sure it had some intoxicating vinous quality.
The final meat course is a beautiful small slice of beef in a sauce of uncured shallots cooked in beet juice. There is a basilwood smoked corn to the side, paired with the delicious fruit of the Bordeaux. My mouth is doing pirouettes of joy.
Hours have passed, the earth has turned, the moon is up and the stars are out. I can’t follow Damon’s lectures and detailed descriptions anymore. I’m in the timeless space now. We’re toasting my birthday, Harry’s graduation, upcoming projects real and imagined, our children, our dear friends, world peace, the wit of the men and the beauty of the women. All eyes and ears turn to dessert.
A selection of Damon’s homemade cheeses arrive first, laid out beautifully with fresh herbs and flowers. And hot on the heels of that, the dessert platter: a goat butter pastry, an intense beet and chocolate pudding/mousse,wild pink currant sorbet, slices of apricot, cherries, a homemade brittle, a savory cheesecake. A small bottle of local late harvest dessert wine from the Finger Lakes appears from somewhere.
We have enjoyed a completely local meal with the exception of the seafood from Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and the wines. For me, a sublime birthday meal once again. I was dazzled by Damon’s creativity, intensity and his “nose to tail” philosophy for both plants and animals. But this man is not just a scientist or a performance artist who wants to dazzle and disturb; his food is delicious, nutritious, gorgeous. Damon is an artist in touch with the earth. The depth of pleasure from being with my loving partner, and two friends who are cooks, and appreciated the detailed processed required in presenting this food, was good for my soul. And also, what a lesson in mastery. Damon Baehrel thought about “time” in an astoundingly big picture kind of way: how long to age the cheese, when to make the butter, the best time to pick or preserve all the different vegetables and fruits at the height of their ripeness or before they transmute, when to inoculate logs with rare bluefoot mushroom spores, how to time the courses, how to hear the beats of the diners’ hearts. He thought about time so we could enjoy a “timeless” experience. Our deep pleasure and our education, as opposed to the aims of some of the more intellectual chefs on the scene, were the most important aspects of the enterprise.
May you all experience deep pleasure today..and every day,
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