Monday, October 6, 2008

The best $75 meal in the country

I'm sure you're asking yourself, "how can a $75 meal be considered a bargain?" I would've asked the same question myself before this past Saturday night at 10:10 pm. It was at that precise time, after which having just enjoyed a five hour and 20 minute meal at the Basement Bistro in Earlton, NY, that I realized that I had just enjoyed the best meal of my life.

Suddenly, $75 didn't seem like an expensive meal. After a five hour meal with Chef Damon Baehrel - owner, host, chef, waiter, sommelier, farmer, cheesemaker, butcher, dishwasher, carpenter, etc. - at the helm, I found myself wondering how he could possibly serve so much for such little money.

How does he do it? Chef Baehrel debunks the old adage by being not only a Jack of All Trades, but also a master of all of them. It's not just that he grows his own produce on the grounds surrounding his restaurant, and organically at that, but he also makes his own cheeses (from locally-sourced organic milk), bakes his own breads (with wheat from a local grain mill), cures his own charcuterie (from meat raised specifically for him in an organic, sustainable fashion), churns his own butter, and so on. Besides mastering traditional methods, his techniques - all self-taught - would be right at home on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants like wd~50 in NYC and Alinea in Chicago. That spinach powder adorning the stuffed heirloom tomato? Chef Baehrel dried the spinach and pulverized it into a fine dust himself. He's currently curing tomato "bacon" that he'll be serving beginning in January. Wylie Dufresne and Grant Achatz could learn a thing or two from this guy.

Another aspect of the Basement Bistro that helps keeps the cost down is its location. Although it's not an actual "bistro", it is located in a basement. A basement in a run-of-the-mill suburban-style house. (Which, by the way, was also built by Chef Baehrel.) The dining room was remodeled a half-dozen years ago, but it's still pretty basic by most standards. But its stripped-down atmosphere only goes to further the allure of this place - not only are you eating an incredible meal, you're eating that meal in some guy's basement.

The final measure in place to keep the price down is the payroll. Or lack thereof, I should say. One of the most impressive features of the Basement Bistro is that it's pretty much a solitary undertaking. Besides some help from his wife on the business side of things, and a former culinary intern who has transitioned to a part-time reservationist, Chef Baehrel is doing it all by himself. And he has been, while also running a catering company, cooking classes, and restaurant consulting outfit, for the past 18 years. The man must never sleep. (And on certain nights, he doesn't. When we walked out at 10:10 pm this past Saturday night, he began preparing for a party of 20 that would be joining him at 11 pm. He suspected that he'd maybe get an hour nap in before he had to start making the bread the next morning at 6 am.)

I could go on and on about what makes this place so special. And perhaps I will upon subsequent vists. (The menu changes daily, but I'm shooting for quarterly pilgrimages.) But at this time I'm just going to let the food speak for itself. I won't critique each course - there were far too many highs and nothing, and I mean nothing, that wasn't at least very good. Most dishes, in fact, leaned towards magnificent, or revelatory, or just simply jaw-dropping. (My dining companions, which consisted of my wife and my two amazing friends Mark and Cris who introduced me to this place, didn't quite get it when I said that a dish was "slap yo' mama" good, but I can surmount that a few of you out there will understand what I'm talking about.) I apologize if I didn't catch everything perfectly - it's incredibly hard to write when you're trying to take in all of what Chef Baehrel is saying, and even harder when a plate of his food is staring up at you.

So, without further ado, here's a pictorial journey through a meal at the Basement Bistro.

Entrance from the road:

Entrance to the restaurant:

Housemade bread: A focaccia-style bread made with basil flowers, and a sort of "everything bread" made with homemade onion powder, among other things. Served with freshly-churned butter and olive oil imported from a customer's olive farm in Greece.

First Course:
Charcuterie (all cured in-house, clockwise from top):
Goose "salami"
Icelandic lamb cured with coriander
Grass-fed beef brasaola
Kurobuta (Berkshire) pork "speck"
Small bites (from top):
Nasturtium flower, coated in rice flour and baked, served on a sunchoke puree*
Baby green beans wrapped in lamb prosciutto with heirloom carrot puree
Heirloom tomato with swiss chard and spinach powder

Cheeses (all made in-house, clockwise from top):
Blue cheese with sage
Camembert-style cheese
(unknown variety with fried parsley)
Earlton cheese (chef's own recipe)
Goat chevre with apple and nectarine confit

* It should be noted that most of his purees and sauces use a rutabaga stock at various reductions instead of cream or butter. It's amazing how much of a creamy texture this method gives a sauce without adding extra fat

Second Course:
Savory Cones: Parsley-oil "cones" with pureed purple bush beans, green eggplant, and green sunflower seeds

Third Course:
Salmon "BLT": Peachwood-smoked salmon, basil, heirloom tomato, lavender and marjoram aioli

Fourth Course:
Seafood course* (from left to right):
Peekytoe crab with squash blossom puree and cauliflower powder
Oyster poached in tomato water with heirloom carrot salad and squash seeds
Salt and pepper prawn with saffron cabbage "slaw"

* All seafood is provided by a vendor from Maine, who makes the Basement Bistro the first stop on the way to New York City

Fifth Course:
Puffball "Soup": Puffball mushroom puree with applewood smoked corn, watermelon radish flower

Sixth Course:
Frozen duo*:
Wild pink current sorbet
Oven-roasted peach gelato

* Instead of using sugar or another sweetener, he uses unripened grape juice to sweeten his frozen confections

Seventh Course:
Bronze basil ice cream served atop an apple cucumber, with celery root slaw, icicle radish salad, beet powder, heirloom tomato powder, fried basil leaf

Eighth Course:
Meat course (from left to right):
Sous-vide pork sirloin wrapped in venison bacon, silver shallot, delicato/buttercup squash puree, kohlrabi puree
Boiled "Kobe" (Wagyu) eye round, heirloom carrot and onions, pureed potatoes with swiss chard stems, candied swiss chard stem
Olive oil-cured duck confit with sumac, sea salt, butter turnip and wild burdock puree

Ninth Course:
Gamay Noir grape granita

Tenth Course:

Cheese plate:
Roquefort-style blue cheese
unknown "fluffy" cheese
Maplewood-smoked pecorino-style cheese
Apples, grapes, plums, nectarines, air-dried and fresh blueberries

Chocolate "pudding": Tempered Valrhona chocolate with skim milk and blackberry

Eleventh Course:

Mulberry and blackberry sorbet

If you have any questions about the particulars of this meal, please feel free to ask in the comments and I'll answer them to the best of my ability.

Update: The price of this meal is now $235. Also, the restaurant has been renamed Damon Baehrel at the Basement Bistro.


Motosport said...

Damon and his crew catered our wedding back in 2001. It was fabulous. Damon is also a fellow motorcycle enthusiast. A big plus!

Bill Pardue said...

I've just run across this! Have you seen this recent New Yorker article?

I suspect others may be in touch with you soon to recount your experience!