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:
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:
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.