Can’t Talk, Eating (Slight Return)

It was our turn to host our annual quarterly dining club dinner. As late as two weeks before the scheduled day we still had no idea what to make, or what theme to use to unite the courses. While we dithered, we had the opportunity to attend Hidden Singapore, a popup dinner by chef Tsei Wei Lim, co-chef/co-owner of the now departed Journeyman restaurant. While waiting for our table I mentioned to one of our fellow diners that we couldn’t decide on a menu. On the spur of the moment, perhaps inspired by the dinner to come, I said “Maybe we’ll just cook Asian street food,” which got a positive response.

Once committed, we began the frenzied work of pulling a new menu together. This is what we came up with:

Shrimp Toast

A classic appetizer, accompanied by a two-part cocktail. The blue liquid is pear flower tea, and the shot of yellow liquid is a mix of lemon simple syrup, homemade buddha hand citron vodka, and ginger liqueur. Mix them together and this happens:

Otak Otak

The first of three dishes I shamelessly lifted from the Hidden Singapore menu, otak otak is a fish custard made from flaked mackerel, aromatic spice paste, egg, and coconut milk. It is traditionally wrapped in betel leaf, but I used Korean sesame leaf instead. The custard is steamed in a banana leaf wrapper and opened at the table. In addition to the rice, we served two sambals: sambal olek, available in most stores, and sambal belacan, which I made from red chilis, lime juice, and toasted belacan – fermented shrimp paste.

We served a Jasmine Blossom cocktail: jasmine green tea infused gin, lychee syrup, and prosecco garnished with lychee fruit and fresh raspberries. It disappeared before anyone thought to take a photo.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki, a classic Osaka street snack, is made from octopus (tako), which we no longer eat due to the critters being so smart. We substituted shrimp to make ebiyaki instead. They’re balls of batter cooked on a special griddle, filled, and then rolled to cook on all sides. I encourage you to watch a video of a pro making takoyaki and to hold that image in your head instead of imagining me struggling to make perfectly spherical snacks. They were served with the traditional garnishes of takoyaki sauce, Kewpie mayo, powdered nori, and bonito flakes, which “dance” when the dish is served hot:

Yakitori

A Japanese classic: grilled chicken thigh and negi (jumbo scallion), blistered shishito peppers, and cucumber pickles.

This course, and the rest that followed up to dessert, were accompanied by a sparkling unfiltered white wine from the Czech republic:

Beef Rendang

Another dish appropriated from chef Lim, the rending was beef short rib fried in an aromatic spice paste, then braised in coconut milk and tamarind paste until all of the liquid cooked off. Garnished with kerisik (toasted unsweetened coconut) and scallions. When we ate this at Hidden Singapore, one of our dining companions said “You should make this.” And so we did.

Cendol

Our last lift from Hidden Singapore, cendol is coconut shaved ice with noodles made from mung bean flour and pandan juice, garnished with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup.

Taiyaki

This Japanese street snack is a sweet fish-shaped waffle filled with red bean paste. We served it with green tea mochi, chocolate and green tea Pocky, and a green tea Kit Kat bar. Behind it you can see the final beverage, Thai iced tea with black boba:

We concluded the evening with a wee dram of Yamazaki 18 single malt whisky.

We learned a lot of new techniques and ingredients, from working with some of the most awful-smelling stuff on the planet (belacan) to preparing spice pastes and playing with new appliances (takoyaki maker and taiyaki pans). Now I need to think of a meal that would justify my buying a freeze dryer and an ultracentrifuge.

Videos and some photos by Cecilia Tan (@ceciliatan).

P.S. – I realized it’s been over year since my last post. Should I keep doing this? Perhaps more often? Let me know in the comments.

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Can’t Talk, Eating – Again

It was our turn to host Can’t Talk, Eating, the quarterly dining club we share with three other couples. Due to scheduling conflicts, we once again had the summer slot, which was the season for our first meal in the series. Not wanting to repeat the “summer harvest” theme of that dinner, we arrived at “summer picnic,” which works for certain values of “picnic.” If you are a person who uses “summer” as a verb, then nothing we served would have seemed out of place.

Gin and Tonic

 

What better way to start a summer picnic than with a cold G&T? Gin, yellow chartreuse, tonic, and cucumber juice bobas which stubbornly refused to stay at the bottom of the glass. This was a reverse-engineered version of a drink served at Aviary in Chicago.

Gazpacho

If you had read my previous post, you would have remembered that I had a few liters of clarified gazpacho. We finally found the perfect opportunity to serve it, topped with some gazpacho foam and garnished with a cherry tomato on a rosemary sprig.

Shrimp Grits

Not shrimp and grits, but grits made from shrimp added to vegetable stock and some freeze dried corn powder, garnished with pickled jalapeños and scallion greens. This is Wylie Dufresne’s recipe from WD~50.

The gazpacho and shrimp courses were served with a Domäne Wachau 2016 Grüner Veltliner.

 

Fried Chicken, Biscuit, Coleslaw, Watermelon

Buttermilk brined fried chicken coated with a reasonable approximation of the colonel’s secret recipe, buttermilk biscuit, coleslaw, and watermelon-sake slush.

The slaw is actually “cold slaw,” made from carrot juice, red cabbage juice, and green cabbage juice. Gelatin and seasonings were added to each of the juices, which were then  frozen, grated, and flash chilled in liquid nitrogen. This technique was developed by Homaru Cantu at Moto in Chicago.

Lamb Belly Two Ways

Seared lamb belly, applewood smoked lamb bacon, pea and fava bean purée, and lamb reduction. If you summer on the cape or the Hamptons, this is still picnic food.

Served with a Ravenswood 2007 Belloni Zinfandel.

Before and After

Golden plum sorbet and a ripe whole golden plum, served as a palate cleanser.

Cake and Ice Cream

Peach and pecan cornmeal upside down cake with peach/brown sugar/bourbon ice cream. It wasn’t until I stared writing this post that I realized we served the same ice cream at the first dinner, a rare lapse of memory on our part. But at least the cake was different. We finished off with a shot of good bourbon, as should any picnic.

We’ve served one winter and two summer dinners. We hope to grab the fall slot next year. Stay tuned.

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Spin All the Things!

Visitors to the Belm Utility Research Kitchen, after seeing all of the gadgets and equipment, always ask “Is there anything else you need?” My answer is always the same: I’d like a chamber vacuum sealer and an ultracentrifuge. The former is within the realm of possibility (and budget), the latter remains a fantasy. Ultracentrifuges, even desktop models, cost thousands of dollars.

Then I heard about the Spinzall, the latest project from Dave Arnold at Booker and Dax, makers of the Searzall. It’s a tabletop centrifuge for culinary use and it had a reasonable pre-order price on Kickstarter. I passed at the time because I couldn’t afford it, but also because I didn’t think it handled sufficiently large enough volumes to make it useful.

Then a friend posted the results of his first Spinzall experiment – clarified basil oil – on Facebook, asking if anyone else wanted to give it a whirl. I had just the thing: two quarts of gazpacho that I had clarified via ice filtration. I froze a gallon of gazpacho, placed the solid block in a cheesecloth-lined fine mesh strainer in a fridge, then collected the runoff. (I had employed a similar technique to make kimchi consommé.) The results were clear, but I wanted to see how clear I could go.

The Spinzall was smaller than expected, about the size of a food processor. This is when I learned that it had a pump that allowed continuous batch clarification: clarified liquid overflows the spinning head and is collected from the surrounding chamber.

Before we could start spinning, we had to prep the clarified gazpacho. First we added Pectinex, an enzyme that breaks down the naturally occurring pectins found in fruits and vegetables that would keep the solution cloudy. Next we added Kieselsol, a solution of suspended silica, and finally Chitosan, a hydrocolloid. These last two ingredients are the same fining agents that are used to remove suspended solids from wine. My formerly clear gazpacho was now cloudy and blotchy, but ready to spin.

We fed tubing into the container and attached the other end to the Spinzall head.

It took a while for the rotor to fill, but then we could see clear product sheeting down the sides of the outer vessel.

We collected the runoff in clean containers. Note the foam created by the aeration generated by the rotor.

All of the particulates remained behind in the rotor.

Once the foam had settled, we had a final product that was much clearer than the starting solution.

From start to finish the process took about two hours, twice the time needed for an ultracentrifuge. The Spinzall was remarkably quiet – it hummed and throbbed as if it had been constructed using Krell technology.

What will I do with the clarified gazpacho? I’ll either serve it as is, or use it as an infusion for cocktails. But I’m already thinking of the next thing to spin: clarified bacon fat, anyone?

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Dinner at Olo

Sometimes my reputation as a foodie precedes me. As a member of the committee that produced Worldcon 75, I had the opportunity to travel to Helsinki on three separate occasions. During each of my visits, my hosts made an effort to expose me to all facets of Finnish cuisine, from the ten-euro lunch buffet through reindeer-topped pizza to restaurants offering modern takes of traditional dishes.

But it wasn’t until the actual convention that I had my best Helsinki meal, thanks to my international restaurant fixer Scott Edelman. He found Olo, one of the city’s Michelin starred restaurants (one star), and reserved a table for six. We all agreed to select the Journey tasting menu, settling in for nearly four hours of food and conversation.

Fenkolta/Fennel

None other than Robert Silverberg advised me “If they serve you fennel, eat it.” They did, and I did. The lightly glazed stalks of baby fennel were a perfect way to start the meal: light, refreshing, and a palate reset to prepare us for what was to come.

Osterilehteä ja osteria/Oyster leaf and oyster

Lohta ja krassinkukkaa/Salmon and nasturtium

This garden in a bowl held oyster leaves (they do taste like oysters) filled with oyster cream, and nasturtium flowers filled with salmon cream.

Porkkanaa ja merilevää/Carrot and seaweed

Roasted carrots rolled in panko and nori.

Kananmaksaa, kanannahkaa ja kanalientä/Chicken liver, chicken skin, and poultry stock

Spheres of chicken liver mousse, chicken skin crackers, and chicken stock. I was having the wine pairing, so the tiny vial was included, which I was advised to drink as I ate the mousse. Perfect advice, as the bottle was a sip of Chateau d’Yquem, a sauterne traditionally served with foie gras.

Sienipiiras/Mushroom pie

Mushroom-filled pastry shells topped with chanterelle mushrooms and parmesan. This concluded the finger food portion of the menu.

Emmer-mannaa ja poron sydäntä/Emmer semolina and reindeer heart

Emmer wheat porridge with shaved dried reindeer heart and quinoa, with wild mushroom sauce underneath. I’ve concluded that it’s not possible to eat a multi-course Finnish meal and not be served reindeer.

Kurkkua ja sinisimpukkaa/Cucumber and mussel

Mussels, cucumbers, nasturtium leaves, and the first of many sauces with dill as a component.

Olon leipää ja karitsaa/Olo’s bread and baby lamb

The plating for this course began with a sheet of paper and a smear of house-churned butter, followed by a bowl of baby lamb tartare and a loaf of sourdough. The various dips were garlic, avocado, cucumber, and rapeseed oil. It’s unusual to be served a bread course in the middle of a tasting menu, but I ate it all, despite my concern that it would make me too full to enjoy the rest of the meal. Somehow I managed to soldier on.

Tomaattia ja vouhenjuustoa/Tomato and goat cheese

A play on the classic caprese salad: baby tomatoes with cucumber, basil gelée, and frozen powdered goat cheese.

Merianturaa ja kesäperunaa/Sole with summer potatoes

Poached sole, baby potato, fresh peas, kale, dill sauce.

Kuhaa ja kaviaaria/Pike perch with caviar

This was the first dish where I could see the work that went into its preparation. Pike filet had been “glued” together with transglutaminase, thinly sliced, and set over a disc of horseradish cream. A turned turnip cup held the caviar and sour cream.

Kateenkorvaa ja sipuleita/Sweetbreads of veal with onions

Sweetbreads are typically dredged in flour and lightly fried, but for this dish it was seared like foie gras. It was served with a roasted onion and oxtail stock.

Jogurttia ja tilliä/Yogurt and dill

Frozen yogurt foam with dill gelée and cucumber granita. A perfect palate cleanser.

Kesän marjoja, maitoa ja sitruunaverbena/Sumer berries, milk, and lemon verbena

Baby strawberries, strawberry sorbet, frozen mint spheres, and lemon verbena powder. And the mandatory salmiakki: salty black licorice.

Vadelmaa ja rusua/Raspberry and rose

Mustaherukka/Blackcurrant

Mignardises to conclude our meal: pastry puffs filed with raspberry and rose cream, and blackcurrant jellies.

Many restaurants pay lip service to “fresh and local,” but Olo didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk. Every dish highlighted an aspect of what Finland had to offer. I’d be interested in revisiting in the winter when the variety of fruits and vegetables would be more limited, but I suspect they’d be no less creative.

There was no technique on display for the sake of clever presentation, but there was clearly a lot of thought and skill put into each plate. It was refreshing to enjoy a fine meal where everything was in service to the food.

I’m not sure when I’ll return to Helsinki, but if I do, another dinner at Olo will be on my list.

(A confession: I ate everything on every plate with one exception – the salmiakki. That stuff is just nasty.)

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Twelfth Annual Birthday Dinner

Trying to shoehorn an extended essay into 140-character tweets is a pain, the threading is a nightmare and it’s impermanent. If only there was some other medium better suited to the purpose…

Oh, what’s this? *blows dust of WordPress*

How is it possible that I haven’t posted anything here for a little over a year? It’s not that I haven’t been cooking  – I’ve made a lot of new dishes. It’s a copout, but life got incredibly busy and interesting (in the Chinese proverb sense), leaving me with little time to devote to this blog. So it’s time to start up again, and what better occasion that the annual birthday dinner for She Who Must Be Obeyed?

I knew it was coming – it happens at the same time every year – but I was still surprised when two weeks before the dinner I still had no idea of what to cook. She Who tried to be helpful: “Don’t cook anything complicated.” (As if I would ever follow that advice.) Rather than struggle with a unifying theme for the menu progression, I chose a series of dishes that I knew she had enjoyed in other settings. I was able to do a lot of advance prep and minimized the a la minute cooking to make the timing work better. Here’s what I came up with:

Negroni

We started with an update of the classic Negroni: equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. I infused the mix with lemon and orange peel, raspberries, and slice of grapefruit.

Egg

Our guests were served a small sealed mason jar, which, when opened revealed this:

From the bottom up: pommes purée (Joel Robuchon recipe, 33% butter by weight), crispy maiitake mushrooms, sous vide poached egg, and crispy duck skin. Served with a 2012 Peter Lauer Riesling. (This was the signature dish at West Bridge restaurant in Cambridge, where She Who made repeated attempts to steal bites of my serving after she finished hers.)

Asparagus

Grilled brined asparagus with preserved lemon aioli and toasted almonds. Served with a 2016 grüner veltliner.

Beef

Truth in advertising: This photo is of a version of the dish I prepared previously. My plating for this dinner was so embarrassingly amateurish that I won’t let anyone see it. I served the same sous vide and seared ribeye with shiitake mushroom marmalade and beef jus, but swapped out the squash and bone marrow for sautéed fiddleheads (which had just come into season). Served with a 2008 Ravenswood Dickerson Zinfandel.

Sgroppino

No photo of this palate cleansing cocktail, but it was a mix of citron vodka and prosecco topped with a scoop of lemon coconut saffron sorbet – a boozy ice cream float.

Chocolate

When I brought this to the table I received nods of recognition from three of our guests, who had seen this dessert when I first made it 33 years earlier. It’s bombe au trois chocolats, a Julia Child recipe for a chocolate brownie shell filled with chocolate mousse and glazed with chocolate ganache. My updated version added blood orange reduction to the mousse and blood orange zest as a garnish. I served it with a side of cardamom-scented whipped cream.

She Who had only heard stories about this dessert, so I wasn’t sure it would live up to it’s near-legendary hype. I’m happy to report it did.

I hope another year won’t pass before I update this blog. I already have a few ideas for future posts. Stay tuned.

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We’re Out of Vanilla

If you worked in an ice cream store in the mid-’80s you almost certainly saw this B. Kliban cartoon, probably pinned to the staff bulletin board or taped to a wall in the back room. When it was first published (Playboy, February 1983) it was a solid absurdist laugh – after all, who would make, let alone eat, those flavors?

That was then. Now, when I can walk a few blocks and order a cup of salty whisky ice cream, those flavors seem less weird and more in the hipster sweet spot. I’m no hipster – I can’t cultivate the proper Civil War era beard – but I have unintentionally made each of those flavors. Witness me:

Wood

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Cedarwood vanilla ice cream, served as part of a dessert along with cheese and Eccles cakes. Does it contain actual wood? No, ice cream is no place for dietary fiber.

Liver

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Foie gras ice cream, made from lovely fatty duck liver. Served with strawberry, balsamic, ginger snap crumble, and black pepper.

Corn

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This photo is a bit of a stretch. The ice cream pictured here is french toast, which includes toasted brioche, but the panna cotta is made from Cap’n Crunch cereal milk. Since the time of this photo, however, I have modified my french toast ice cream recipe, which now begins with cereal milk made from French Toast Crunch (available again, thanks to boomer nostalgia).

It’s still unlikely that you’ll find similar ice creams in your local scoop shop, but here at Chez Belm, we’re likely to say “We’re out of vanilla. Would you like some wood or liver?”

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Eleventh Annual Birthday Dinner

How do I come up with the menus for the annual birthday dinners for She Who Must Be Obeyed? I pay attention to dishes that she’s enjoyed over the course of a year, either prepared by me, or that we’ve enjoyed while dining out.

Penicillin

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We began with the same cocktail I made for the last Can’t Talk, Eating: Lemon, ginger, honeycomb, lapsang souchong tea, Laphroaig and Johnnie Walker Black whiskys.

Onion Soup

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Sweet onion soup with pain de mie croutons and parmesan shavings.

FG&J

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A variation on the classic PB&J, made with toasted pain de mie, foie gras torchon, and homemade black cherry preserves. Served with a 2012 Karthäuserhof Riesling kabinett. 

Risotto

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Spring ramp risotto with herbed ricotta. Served with a 2012 Belleruche Côtes du Rhone (a gift from our diner at Damon Baehrel).

Pork

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Cured pork belly with poached green apple, chard purée, chard stems, pork reduction, and mustard vinaigrette. Served with a 2008 Ravenswood Belloni Zinfandel.

Coffee and Donuts

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Coffee gelée, glazed donut ice cream, and a Pocky “cigarette.” This was a variation on an earlier presentation.

Chocolate

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Even though it was her birthday dinner, She Who Must Be Obeyed insisted on making this dessert: flourless chocolate cake with raspberry jam, fresh raspberries, chocolate ganache, and whipped cream. Served with a Taylor Fladgate 2o year old tawny port.

Credit Where Credit is Due

Onion soup: Study, Cambridge, MA

FG&G: Swine, New York, NY

Risotto: Serious Eats

Pork: Per Se, New York, NY

Onion soup photo by Daphne Strassmann

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Smoke ’em If You Got ’em

It was our turn again for Can’t Talk, Eating, our quarterly dining club. Due to the host rotation this was our first winter meal, so we planned on heartier fare. We settled on a theme of “smoke” for all the courses, in both obvious and subtle presentations.

Charcuterie

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Baguette, fig and butter spread, Serrano ham, brie.

Lamberti prosecco

Penicillin

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Lemon, ginger, honeycomb, lapsang souchong tea, Laphroaig and Johnnie Walker Black whiskys.

This cocktail was infused in Portholes, which are used at Aviary in Chicago (next door to Next).

Cauliflower

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Cauliflower soup with bacon and scallions.

Scallop, Dill

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Smoked scallop crudo with meyer lemon salt, dill crème frâiche, rice cracker.

2012 Peer Lauer Riesling “Stirn”

Haggis

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Oat-crusted haggis, pommes purée, hakurei turnips in brown butter, lamb reduction.

Ardbeg Supernova whisky

This is a more refined version of the traditional Burns Night meal.

Duck, Fennel

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Spice-brined, seared, and glazed duck breast, smoked duck hearts, smoked fennel confit, duck reduction.

Ravenswood 2008 Icon “Mixed Blacks”

This recipe can be found in Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston cookbook.

Currants, Cheese, Cedar

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She Who Must Be Obeyed made Eccles cakes, which we served with Lincolshire Poacher cheese and cedarwood vanilla ice cream.

Taylor Fladgate 20 year old tawny port

Prep for all the dishes was simple, with the exception of the duck, which required a week’s worth of work to get from whole birds to a cup of reduction. Our Smoking Gun also got a serious workout.

A friend, after seeing the dinner photos, commented “You seem to be working in the beige-to-ecru palette.” That’s true, but not intentional. Even though we’re living with spring weather, it’s still February, months away from the first spring vegetables. There’s only so much I’m willing to add to a plate just for the sake of some color. We’re starting our lobbying now to host the fall meal.

First composite photo by Cecilia Tan.

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Birthday Dinner at Tasting Counter

Deciding where to have dinner on my birthday is a process that can begin months before the actual meal. After all the planning that went into last year’s wd~50 dinner, I wanted to limit this year’s choice to the Boston area. After reading this review in The Boston Globe, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I decided to try Tasting Counter. A few days later, the latest issue of Boston magazine arrived, with a gorgeous photo of plated dishes on the cover. They had named Tasting Counter their number one pick of the 25 best new restaurants. She managed to get tickets before the system was overwhelmed by people who had read the review.

The restaurant couldn’t be in a more hip place: It’s sectioned off from the Aeronaut brewery and pub, down the hall from a local chocolatier, adjacent to the Brooklyn Boulders climbing center, and on the same block as Artisan’s Asylum, the largest maker space in the northeast. Step through their door, however, and you are met with this quiet oasis:

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The counter seats up to twenty guests and surrounds a central kitchen area:

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There is more support staff in the back, but for the next two hours we would watch and be served by four chefs, two servers, and the general manager who handled the drink pairings. Once all the guests arrived, the meal began.

Welcoming Bites

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From left to right: Cured hake, orange sesame crisp, lime juice; almond macaron with foie gras and black olive filling; sea bream wrapped in sake gel, rice cracker. Served with  a 2014 Domaine de la Bregeonnette Gros Plant.

Sea Urchin

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Egg shell filed with bonito custard, truffle sauce, uni, and crispy nori. Served with a 2013 Sicilia Grillo.

Sea Scallop

I was so excited by this dish that I failed to take a photo. We were served a scallop shell filled with avocado oil cream, topped with sliced diver scallop, black olive, cured roe, and crispy preserved lemon. Served with a 2013 Biano di Baal.

Parsnip & Pear

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Roasted parsnip and fresh pear soup served over blackcurrant purée wth pine mushrooms and sweetbreads. Served with a 2013 Sergio Mottura Civitella Rosso.

Ocean Trout

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Ocean trout with shallot sauce, fermented soybeans with basil, and orange blossom gel. Served with a 2013 Philippe Badea la Foulee des Zinzins.

Monkfish

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Roasted monkfish on the bone, fennel frond sauce, cucumber in brown butter, and milk-braised fennel. Served with a 2013 Rocco di Carpeneto Róo.

Schisandra Berry

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A palate cleanser made from “five flavor berry,” this drink was simultaneously salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter. It was accompanied by a pine nut biscuit.

Miso Cured Duck

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Miso-cured duck breast with apple and daikon gelée, soy sauce, and celery foam. Served with a 2013 Tripod Project Deep Probe pinot noir.

Dry Aged Beef Sirloin Cap

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Beef, pomegranate marinated beets, and madcarpone horseradish cream. Served with a 2011 Chateau Lestignac L’Ancestral.

Lime Curd

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Lime curd over molasses cake, topped with ginger meringue, garnished with passionfruit sauce and torched lime. Served with a 2014 Caseler Dominikanerberg Spätlese Riesling.

Chocolate & Yuzu

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Chocolate and yuzu mousse made with chocolate from neighboring Somerville Chocolates, accompanied with persimmon ice cream and lime leaf custard. Served with a 2012 Les Pins Monbazillac.

Parting Morsels

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Lavender chocolate truffle, strawberry almond cake, and plum vanilla chew. The card was a copy of the evening’s menu.

I loved everything about this meal. The progression of dishes was flawless, each a perfect composition of flavor combinations I hadn’t tasted before. There was the extra thrill of watching the quiet choreography as each dish was assembled in front of us, followed by an explanation as it was presented by the chef. The wine course was an education in pairings with bottles that were completely unfamiliar to me. And the relaxed atmosphere drove home the idea that this meal was being cooked for us.

Rather than gush any more about how much I enjoyed the meal, I’ll end with this: As soon as we walked out, I looked at She Who and said “We have to eat here again.”

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Dinner At Damon Baehrel

I have a lot of foodie friends. We cook for each other, share recipes, trade restaurant info, and sometimes arrange to eat at some of the country’s (or world’s) best restaurants. One friend in particular, Scott Edelman, has a knack for wrangling “impossible” reservations, which has resulted in amazing meals at Alinea, The Fat Duck, and Next. When he travels, he tries to find the best food at each destination, which can occasionally pose a challenge. When he informed me that he would be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY, I wished him luck with finding a retaurant that would meet his exacting standards. Little did I know he had already been working on a plan: He would get us a table at Damon Baehrel.

I had never heard of the place, but quickly learned that it was one of the world’s toughest reservations, with a ten-year waiting list. There wasn’t much more to be learned online, but this video was intriguing:

Then, to my surprise, Scott informed us that we had a table. After a year and a half of correspondence, he had managed to convince the chef to open on a Monday afternoon for six of us. And so, last Monday, we drove to Earlton, NY to have a meal that I’m still thinking about a week later. She Who Must Be Obeyed and I were joined by Scott, his wife Irene, wrier Cecilia Tan, and her partner Corwin. Rather than repeat what has been said much better by two professional writers and foodies, I encourage you to read Scott’s and Cecilia’s posts about the meal.

Damon allowed us to take one photo of the interior, the table filled with examples of some of the ingredients he uses in his dishes:

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Seeing acorns, cattails, and staghorn sumac reminded me of my Boy Scouts experience on a “survival weekend,” when we had to forage for our food. The acorn flour we made was inedible: How were we to know that it takes more than a year of soaking to make it palatable? Despite my youthful skepticism, Euell Gibbons had it right – you can eat a pine tree.

The video gives you an idea of the seasonings and techniques the chef employs, but this description (provided by the publicist) of one of the 25 dishes we enjoyed should give you an idea of his obsession:

Wild foraged Honey Mushroom that was layered with a native Day Lily Tuber (both hand shaved very thin). It was drizzled with fresh hand pressed grape seed oil and dusted with wild fennel powder before being roasted on a hardwood cherry wood plank. The accompaniments were a sauce made from wild milkweed cooked in birch sap and thickened with rutabaga starch/stock and a “burnt sweet corn paste” where he took his fresh heirloom sweet corn and plunged it into hot charcoal embers (about 1200 degrees with husks still on) to essentially melt, burn & liquefy the kernels before pulverizing them smooth on a stone with another stone. The dusting was a wild day lily shoot powder.

Almost every dish was served with a vegetable, but not in any recognizable form. They had been transformed into sauces and purees thickened with starches and stocks. Absent a bit of salt used to garnish the bread, the seasonings were drawn from a countless array of powders and fresh herbs. I remember very few, but recognized the citrus tang of sumac powder and was surprised at the peppery taste of dried lichen powder.

On the three-hour drive back to Boston we commenced a brain dump of what we remembered eating. We were able to remember the progression of dishes and most of the vegetable accompaniments, but got mired down trying to remember what powders appeared on what plates. Here’s the meal that took us seven hours to enjoy:

  • Three breads (two during main meal – one seeded, one flat/foccaccia-like, one during cheese course), two butters (one sheep one cow) and herbed grapeseed oil
  • Hickory flour crisp with blue foot chicken salami
  • Cured salmon topped with shaved burdock chip
  • Pine flour cracker with wild mushrooms in butternut oil
  • Honey mushroom with day lily tuber (see description above)
  • Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot) slush (all slushes sweetened with stevia)
  • Charcuterie plate: four cheeses and six meats (tamworth ham, goose, guinea hen, duck, goat, venison) with partridge berry puree, peach preserved in vinegar, and mulberry puree
  • Mahogany clams in pine needle oil & green [sauce]
  • Peekytoe crab on barberry
  • Lobster with goldenrod & rutabega broth
  • Prawn on cherry sap
  • Sumac & lemon verbena slush
  • Pine needle cured pork
  • Goat sausage in witch hazel smoke, with purple potato and sweet potato purees with a ball of three preserved and fermented potatoes
  • Teal duck with homemade saffron
  • Turkey leg nugget with a pine bark crunch
  • Glass-cooked sirloin angus beef with green wild onion garnish, cabbage and turnip purees, and nettles
  • Clover and violet slush
  • Acorn flour cornet with nightshade bean filling and hickory nuts topping
  • Faux creme brulee with duck egg “custard,” maple sap sugar brulee, and wild cranberry
  • Evaporated acorn and hickory nut “coffee” made into “chocolate” with preserved peach, dried apricot, and pine nuts
  • Cheese course : 12 cheeses, 2 grapes (champagne and cayuga), raspberries, apples, pears, sorrel leaves, chard, and kale
  • Elderberry slush with maple seed crunch

There were some thoughtful wine pairings to accompany sections of the meal, but Damon had a surprise for the dessert courses: a bottle of 1998 Château D’Yquem sauternes – “on the house.” (!!!)

How happy were we with that meal? You be the judge:

damon02

I’m frequently asked to name the best restaurant meal I’ve ever eaten. I usually hedge by listing my top five. After last week, Damon Baehrel is now in my top three.

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