The Gastronomy of Trust – Damon Baehrel – Earlton, NY
As diners, we often forget the trust that we place in those who prepare and serve us sustenance. But on occasion this rises to the surface when we choose to dine in an especially “authentic” (read: dirty) ethnic restaurant. On other occasions this may be linked to the servers, a notable concern (if now inconsequential) in the days of the AIDS epidemic. Sometimes the kitchen workers are the source of our fears, as when frightening accounts of raging hepatitis are spread. Lettuce has e.coli and ice cream, listeria. In truth, many food-borne illnesses are spread in restaurants (and, of course, at homes as well).
This recognition of the centrality of trust in the culinary arts brings me to the case of Damon Baehrel. Damon Baehrel must surely be among the world’s most astonishing restaurants – if indeed restaurant is the proper label (there are reservations, diners, and a bill). The restaurant is run by one man, Damon Baehrel. He gathers the food, prepares it, serves it, and does the dishes. It is as if Domenico DeMarco of DiFara Pizza channeled Per Se. And did so with humanity, botany, and artistry. Damon was literally alone with us in the restaurant. Literally. Alone. This is a one-man show: a man on a tightrope.
Many things separate Damon Baehrel from the other great American restaurants. First, to get it out of the way is the five-year wait for reservations. The restaurant has stopped taking reservations because of the waiting list. I received a reservation after about eighteen months because I pleaded (truthfully – no fibbing, please) that moving back to Chicago from New Jersey would make a visit prohibitive, but some on the list travel much further than I did.
Second, Baehrel’s commitment to foraging and locavore cuisine puts Noma to shame. Almost all of the ingredients (with the exception of seafood which shows up on Damon’s doorstep each morning from a supplier) is gathered from his several acre property in New York’s Hudson Valley (near Coxsackie) or from his farm nearby. This includes beef and pork and duck. It also includes tree sap from a forest of species and flour from an astonishing array of plants. We were served berries, nuts, mushrooms, and many weeds. These ingredients, many of which were new (and disconcerting) to me, allowed for techniques of cooking that are not found in most (all?) restaurants. Damon Baehrel does not cook with butter, cream, and sugar: the holy trinity of cuisine. He uses natural sweeteners (such as stevia and tree saps) and thickeners. He is aware of how ingredients change in their flavor (such as lichens) over the course of the year and uses them when ripe.
My ignorance led me to wonder about the effects of these ingredients. I confess to speculating if I would wake on the morrow. Might some plant be toxic or might I have some severe, but unknown, allergy. I arose smiling, able to write this review, but I did rely on faith, and I hope that Damon is well-insured. There were so many plants and fruits that I had never previously eaten that I could not help but think that this was a form of culinary roulette.
Although as server, Damon insisted (perhaps somewhat too often) that he was a better cook, he did just fine. He was very attentive and is a compelling and lively field guide. He spends much time talking about and showing off his ingredients and his process. He has a puppy dog demeanor, and at times comes across as excessively modest, but his desire to please is genuine. Add to this, Damon is largely self-taught, raised in Massapequa, inspired by a mother who was an avid gardener and forager. His professional gastronomic background is thin. He lacks formal gastronomic credentials and stands outside the “culinary world.” He is truly and startlingly an autodidact. Yet, his dishes connect well in structure with those found at elite restaurants, except with different ingredients and techniques of preparation. Focusing on hyper-local ingredients (what is available on his twelve-acre property), he labels his style as “Native Harvest Cuisine.”
The evening was exceedingly (perhaps uniquely) pleasant and ended with a gift of bread and a bottle of wine (take that, Gordon Ramsay). Damon’s generosity in wine pairing stands apart from any other restaurant. We were served seven bottles of wine and were encouraged to drink as much as we wished, ending with a 1998 Chateau d’Yquem. Had he been located on a subway line, rather than on a curvy country road, that wine would have disappeared. The cost of the evening is significant ($450 before gratuity – should we tip the cook, the server, the forager, the expediter, or the dishwasher?). Lasting memories are priceless.
The meal itself consisted of 23 courses, served over six hours. In contrast to so much about the restaurant, the courses were structured in a traditional format (opening bites, vegetable courses, seafood, meat protein, and dessert with palate cleansers in-between sections). The plates revealed a modernist aesthetic, and several were beautiful, but perhaps not so different than other high-end restaurants, and restrained because there was no corps of kitchen workers to provide “the touches.” We were asked not to take photos, but a large-format book will soon be available picturing Damon’s cuisine.
We began with a series of small bites. First was an exceptional modest, though subtle, piece of bark, made of cedar flour and hickory nut flour on which was lain a “nubbin” of cured chicken. A bit of poultry on a cracker is not such a big deal, but in this case what made it startling was the unusual flavors brought out by the flour and the curing. It tasted more flavorful, more nutty and herbal, that what its structure predicted.
This was followed by a piece of Scottish salmon brined in sycamore syrup, served on another bark chip with black burdock paste, unripened green strawberries, pickerel plant, and sorrel vinegar. As was often the case Damon sprinkles powder on the plate for color and to remind us of the commitment to native plants. Here the dust was from dried marsh marigolds. Even more than the simple opening dish, this was a delicate symphony of flavors. The strawberries were evocative but never overwhelmed the syrupy salmon. It was the first of the dishes that suggested the complexity of the dishes to follow.
The third course was another cracker, this made of pine flour from the inner bark of the tree. To moderate its tannic bite, Damon cured and soaked it for over a year, and served it with duck egg white and a composite of chopped Hen of the Woods and Grey Oyster mushrooms, both picked that morning on the property. It was lovely in its understated quality. A noble bite.
Then followed a palate cleanser: sugarless carrot ice made with stevia tea syrup. This ice was served with two powders: pink (from maple leaves) and green (from green onions and lichen). Damon’s ices and slushes are incredibly deep and flavorful and the expression of carrot reverberated throughout the meal.
The fifth course was the first of the triumphant courses of the evening, revealing the range and power of Damon’s craft. It was a bread, cheese, and sausage plate, arranged as Alinea-inspired contemporary art, but with each of these tastes created by Damon himself. He may be one of America’s greatest cheesemakers, and a respectable bread maker and provider of encased meats. Breads included those made from cattails, clover, flax, and acorns. Although Damon does not cook with butter, we were served two butters: cow butter with wild Angelina and sheep milk butter with Lamb’s Quarters. Sausages included guinea fowl, goose, duck, venison, lamb, and Berkshire pork, cured with spruce and pine. If there was one dish that I wished that I could have captured digitally, this was the one.
The next course raised the stakes. Visually it was modestly plated on a plank of wood, but it packed flavor and texture in its small cube. Imagine a lasagna (or a Napoleon) in which the multiple stacked layers alternated between mushroom and daylily tubers. The sauce was composed of milkweed shoots, birch stock, and rutabaga root. Who knew? Bite for bite, this might have been my very favorite of the night.
I was not as taken with course seven, which seemed to be a play on the kind of gag-inspired dining often found at restaurants that specialized in molecular cuisine. Damon’s “Phony Egg” had a Fat Duck vibe. The phony white was cattail shoots in maple sap, the yolk was a pickled gold tomato with parsnip juice, the home fries came from the inner bark of the willow tree, and the bacon was snipped from a heritage turkey leg. It wasn’t a bad dish, but it seemed designed for fun than for taste.
Course eight was a pre-Keller cone. Although Damon did not emphasize how his dishes related to other modernist culinary creations, he explained that he began making these savory cones in 1986, before Thomas Keller (who had cooked in the Hudson Valley) made them iconic. In Damon’s version, the cone, set in a decorative bed of dried peas, was made with acorn flour. The filling was nightshade (not deadly!) beans with birch sap, eggplant powder, and hickory nuts. It was more a tribute to the wild than brilliant in its own right.
Course nine was another palate cleanser. In this case, a very deep wild grape and wild clover. It was a taste that revealed the grape essence.
We finally spied the sea, treated to the bounty of Nova Scotia. First was an excellent clam bathed in hemlock (!) oil. I began to think Socratic thoughts, but so far, so good. This lovely lithe dish was served with ostrich fern heads and golden thistle root chips. Here was a dish that seemed both light and substantial. A bite with great power.
The following dish was another high point of the evening. Nova Scotia peekytoe crab, steeped in sap (Damon prefers not to boil or steam, believing that food loses its flavor through such techniques, but roasted the crab on cedar wood). Acorn butter served to give the crab a richness that matched animal fat. Added was lovage juice, garlic scape juice, and turnip water. Although I could not otherwise guess the sauce, it consisted of wild chicory roots in ironwood liquor, creating an intense herbal broth that brought out the meaty aroma of the crab.
Course twelve featured a star turn of Nova Scotia lobster, steeped in birch sap, roasted on hot stone. (Roasting is a favorite technique at the Bistro). The merry crustacean was served with sweet goldenrod and a cured yellow fin tuna salami with birch leaf ashes. Again, with Damon as guide, we had a combination of beautiful but expected seafood set in the uncounted bounty of the forest.
Thirteen moves from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland to present salt prawn served in cherry tree sap (again with the sap) with lemon cucumber and spicy cured swordfish. I didn’t find this dish as compelling as the other seafood treats, but certainly it was a treat, even if the swordfish missed the mark.
The next palate cleanser was another slushie: combining unripened grape juice and sumac berry. It was a sweet and sour delight, the most compelling and original ice of the night.
We slid into animal protein, all from Damon’s nearby farm (no roadkill). Course fifteen was the most outstanding of the meat dishes. This was pine-needle cured pork from the neck, shank, and shoulder blade, cooked for nine hours in hickory sap, and presented compressed in a squash blossom with pea shoots and bull thistle sauce. (Damon uses very little in the way of traditional grains). Not only was this a beautiful plating, but it was also so intense as to be hard to imagine that pork is often dry and tasteless. This was an astonishing dish. Dazzling.
Heritage goat starred in course sixteen: goat leg roasted on a hot stone, served with goat and wild pear sausage and what Damon described as “rotten potatoes” (potatoes that had been stored, fermenting in vinegar. The sauce was made from Adirondack blue potatoes. As challenging as rotten potatoes are to think, the goat leg was that delicious.
Teal duck, a mild canard, did not impress me very much. It was well-cooked, but not as flavorful as I had expected, even when coated with sumac powder and cooked in soil. The high point of this dish was the tender toddler asparagus shoots that had only emerged this morning.
Our beef dish, course eighteen, was Red Angus beef, dry aged for seventy days, then heated under glass. The tender eye round was served with birch polypore mushrooms that had been steamed for fifty hours. The dish was impressively napped with wood nettles, sage salt, and wild turnip sauce. Again, a traditional protein was combined with tastes that were novel and a bit edgy.
Our first two desserts, plated together, were a lovely wild elderberry slushie and a “creme brulee” (without creme). The creme consisted of duck eggs, stevia, and squash seeds with a crystalized walnut sap syrup and serviceberries. It was a stirringly rich dessert in which any thought of sugar or cream had been properly banished. The grandest dessert of the night.
Course 21 was “Earlton Chocolate,” made without cocoa, but with fermented acorn butter and hickory nut butter edged with a puddle of mulberry juice. I was astonished at the extent to which the combination tasted like a dark chocolate. Perhaps it didn’t taste much more than chocolate, but chocolate from acorns grow.
Our cheese and fruit plate was remarkable because each cheese – ten of them – was hand-created by our friendly chef/cheesemaker/dishwasher. By this time in the evening, I felt a certain lassitude, but the range of cheese from a powerful blue to a watery curd were remarkable. Here was a fromagerie disguised as a restaurant.
Finally a last slushie: grape and maple sap. A lovely end to a staggering, enveloping, and glittering evening.
We arrived at 4 p.m. and left after 10 p.m., and our host never slowed down, and was never less than delighted and willing to share. Dinner at Damon Baehrel is a meal like no other. A bucket list experience. Perhaps these dishes, taken together were not as beautifully packaged as some of the restaurants with a culinary brigade and every so often one might miss a pat of butter, but in terms of sheer pleasure in the chef’s company and in the shared wisdom of eating off the land, nothing could compare to this night. No chef has ever received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, but there is always a first. My money is on Damon Baehrel. If it takes five years to dine with him, you will swiftly forget the delay.
776 County Highway 45
Earlton, NY 12058
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