Birthday Weekend 2009

I have been thinking of how to do a review of the two places we visited last weekend. Two tasting menus in two days. And although both were very enjoyable experiences, they were examples of how different putting your meal in the hands of the chef can be rewarding, fun, and more than a bit filling.
We started off on Friday night with an 8 o'clock reservation at "8 Tables" in Saratoga Springs. El and I both chose the tasting menu because, as with most places, tasting menus are for an entire table and not just an individual.
FRIDAY
Course I
Pan seared fois gras with pear preserves drizzle on crostini bread, a veal demi and truffle oil. Truthfully, I have never thought of myself as much of a fois gras guy, but this course really started to change my mind. Although the pear preserves were a tad on the sweet side, the couple of bites were a really nice prelude to the dinner.
Course II
Two sauteed chicken livers separated by a single perfectly seared diver scallop topped with kernel corn and sage butter, panchetta, white wine, and garlic. We both agreed that the livers were, well, they tasted like liver. I don't think they were prepared poorly, they just tasted like what they are. We would have rather had two scallops and one liver. The scallop was quite tasty.
Course III
Duo of salads. Left side was a chop salad with romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers, Monterey Jack cheese cubes, dried cherries, pecans, with balsamic vinaigrette. The right side of the dish was a romaine salad with walnuts, and deep fried capers with bleu cheese dressing. The capers were a nice little addition to the salad.  We agreed that a crumbly bleu cheese would have been nice instead of the thin buttermilk based bleu cheese dressing. Both salads were decent enough.
To help with the sauces, though, we asked for a basket of bread. They quickly bring us a warmed baguette with butter.
Course IV
“Surf and Turf": On the right, a single jumbo shrimp stuffed with a Ritz cracker, white wine, and herbed butter stuffing. In the center of the plate, a petite filet mignon broiled with lobster butter. On the left, a side of pureed sweet potatoes and parsnips topped with sauteed hericots. The shrimp was fantastic, the filet had a little bit of a petroleum taste to it that was largely unappealing (as if it had been cooked on a grill using too much lighter fluid), and the sweet potato/parsnip mash was as good as anyone who despises both ingredients might find the combo. As we finish the course, we both get the look in our eyes that we are full enough to roll into the dessert course. However, much to our amazement, after a few minutes, instead of offering us coffee, the waiter arrives with the pasta course!
Course V
A ribbon of fettuccine with red sauce and a single, easily half pound, pork meatball sitting on top. The sauce was acceptable. Not mom's and not El's, but acceptable. The meatball was very nice while the pasta was a few seconds overcooked for my liking. Not figuring we could eat any more after this dish, we sit back and begin to digest. Then, much to our chagrin, the waiter arrives with a plate of the house signature dish for us to dig into!
Course VI
"Asian Ahi tuna nachos". The single plate consisted of fried wanton skins in place of the traditional corn chips. Piled high with black sesame crusted lightly seared tuna, drizzled with a wasabi and teriyaki sauce. At this point I am so full that I opt to eat the just the tuna and forgo the wontons. By the end of this inventive dish, we are both ready to throw in the towel and say, no more food.
Course VII
The dessert course arrives. We are both too full to really enjoy it. It was another double dish. On the left a single scoop of Stewart's brand "Crumbs Along The Mohawk" ice cream. On the right, a ramekin of bourbon pecan bread pudding. Great taste, but again at this point it is unclear how much we are really able to appreciate given our completely sated state.
It will be interesting to see how this meal compares to the next nights meal at The Basement Bistro in Earlton, NY. One hint though is that the next nights’ meal was twice the number of courses and we drove home feeling satisfied, but not overly full. Bottom line, the quality of this place is decent and I would return. Our only issue is the size of the courses does not allow for the later courses to be enjoyed as much as we would have liked. Usually, tasting menus offer more courses in smaller portions so the chef can offer you bites of their creation, but this was too much a case of trying to give us value for our money and not so much showing off the skills.

SATURDAY
[one side note is that we all did our best to keep track of all of the ingredients that were used in the dinner tonight. However, since so many of them are new to us, it is certainly possible that they are mislabeled below. For example, Damon clearly told us he was using "Joan and Elanora parsnips", yet, a Google search reveals the existence of no such ingredient. We tried to be as accurate as possible, and as you might see, it is entirely possible he invented his own species of parsnip, but we are not sure! Without a set menu, we did the best we could.]
We had been trying for a while to get a reservation at the Basement Bistro and it worked out for this Saturday evening. We were told to arrive at 5:00 for our seating. There were six in our party and another table of four. That was it for the entire seating. A restaurant with ten patrons. We were welcomed at the door by Chef Damon, who will serve as our, host, sommelier, waiter, gardener, certified mushroom forager and virtually every position at this place for the next several hours (not sure if he is also the dishwasher, but we are not putting it past him). We are seated and before we know it we are off and running for what will turn out to be the longest running single meal in our lives. Damon confirms that no one has any time constraints for the evening allowing for a "few extra courses" since he has some things he wants us to try. He recommends one white wine Chanson Vire Clesse and one red Bouchanel Pere and Fils Bourgone Pinot Noir for the evening. We will be eating so many different ingredients that it would be quite impractical to have a different wine pairing with each course. Damon picks these as they are very versatile and fit with pretty much everything. I am not much of a red drinker, but the white was quite excellent. The ice water at each setting has a slice of lemon cucumber in it. An ingredient I am not familiar with, but a refreshing addition to the glass nonetheless. Before we get started, Damon has a small table set up in the center of the room with a stack of items, mostly produce, on it.  He addresses everyone at the same time and starts by showing off some of the ingredients that he will be featuring this evening, and giving some histories, stories, and anecdotes depending on his experiences. One of the items he introduces us to is the lemon cucumber which is a cucumber in the texture of the flesh and seeds, but looks like a rindless yellow lemon and has a mixed taste of lemon and cucumber. He says "you're drinking it right now…in your water" (reminiscent of the old "you're soaking in it" (Palmolive) commercials). When he finishes his presentation, he reminds us that he will address all of us at the same time to move things along and also that he will not be pouring any wine after the initial decanting. He explains his pour-your-own philosophy and the dislike he has of restaurants that force a full wine glass in order to sell more wine, not to mention how that affects the designated driver! The chef disappears and the dinner begins...
--starters: the first thing he comes out with is a melon-ball sized bite of Brittany Cucumber ice that uses stevia tea as a sweetener. It really tasted like a cucumber sherbet. A refreshing palate cleanser. We will see the stevia a few more times this evening.
--Next out is a loaf of his signature homemade peasant bread with a crust topped with a mixture of shallot powder, sea salt, marjoram, and mustard seed. The loaf is presented with a lavender bud for garnish and a side of home-churned butter and olive oil for dipping. For sake of comparison, he explains that we are eating yesterday’s butter and he brings out a sample of today’s butter to show the difference in color based on the diet of the dairy cow.


Course I: Charcuterie and Cheese (1 portion pictured)


A plate is put down in front of each of us. There are five different home-cured meats on the left, four homemade cheeses on the right, and a pumpkin blossom in the center. The charcuterie are a slice each of lamb pepperoni, goose pepperoni, duck summer salami, peachwood smoked venison speck, and a roll of air dried beef tenderloin. During his description, Damon explains the differences between pepperonis, salamis, and specks, but we were already, frankly, overwhelmed by the amount of information we were receiving. The cheeses are a bleu cheese, camembert (one of his signature pieces), a ball of chevre with yelllow nectarine and crab apple compote soaked in rhubarb juice, and a Toussannt smoked sheep’s milk cheese. I ate them all with the venison speck and bleu cheese being my favorites. The plate center had a baked pumpkin flower with a crust of fava bean flour, finished with a cardamom sauce. In the lower center of the plate you can also see a dash each of Swiss chard and beet powder.
--compliments of the chef: a cone of eggs, flour, stevia powder, butter, and parsley essence. The light, miniature cones are filled with roasted and pureed golden sonora bush beans with green eggplant powder and rolled in toasted hickory nuts. Presented like a small, savory ice cream cone.
Course II: Soup (3 portions pictured)

Suregold heirloom cherry tomato melted in a pan with chopped Maine mahogany clams. Lavender oil, toasted oak acorn and a baked basil leaf finish off the shot glass cup of soup.
-- prelude to fish course: (my first disappointment of the evening)
This, I believe, is another one of Damon's signature dishes. One that is very popular and almost universally loved, however I am at a loss for how that is possible. The bite is called "peachwood smoked salmon bacon" with a bed of sour cabbage and a drop of lemon balm aioli. The thing about salmon and me, is that I don’t like it unless it is raw. I could eat salmon sashimi all day long. Add some heat to cook it, even a little, and I am revolted by the taste. I ate the bite, but from past experience knew what to expect...a very fishy tasting bite that overpowers all of the other flavors of the bite. It's only a bite, so I will eat it and not make my preferences known.
Course III: Seafood course (one portion pictured)

On the left of the plate is a chilled golumpki (stuffed in rainbow Swiss chard, instead of the usual cabbage leaf) made with turnip water poached spider crab. It is drizzled with homemade beet vinegar mixed with beet puree and emulsified with grapeseed oil. The right side of the plate had, one of my meal highlights...a grilled Maine salt and pepper prawn on top of a bed of cabbage melted in cider berry and golden burdock root stock. Excellent.
Course IV: Another soup (one portion pictured)

This time it is a gem studded puffball and hen-of-the-woods mushroom soup. The mushrooms are softened in grapeseed oil and stewed in rutabaga stock. All is pureed with a hand blender and finished with cherrywood smoked kernel corn topping. Another top notch course.
-- palate cleanser: sugarless sorbet of unripened grape syrup (where he takes the pressed juice and reduces it into syrup) with a sumac tea and wild mountain cherry sorbet. The bite is topped with a sprig of tarragon. (three portions pictured)

-- oddity of the evening: trio of basil ice creams (disappointment number two). It is a small dish of savory bronze basil prepared in three methods. Raw, half cooked, and fully cooked. There was stevia tea and egg involved in this concoction somehow, but honestly I do not remember the details of this, but I do remember it being one I was really not fond of. I appreciate what he was trying to do, but for me, it failed. (three portions pictured)- hell, it didn't even look appetizing!

Course V: Meat plus meat plus fowl plus meat (one portion pictured)

The plate arrives with a duo of pork in the upper left corner of the plate. The one placed closest to the left edge of the plate is a pulled pork that has been brined in pine needle juice with a leek confit. The one closest to the top edge of the plate is a medalian of pork wrapped in lamb panchetta. The pulled pork is excellent. The plate also has two spring Icelandic lamb chops coated with lavender and puree of eggplant with a sweet corn compote in the lower right corner. The fowl on the plate was a sumac crusted duck in the upper right. Basically just a duck thigh and leg brined in sumac and sprinkled with sumac powder, then topped with a sauce I do not remember. I usually love duck and really did like this, but everyone agreed that it was a bit on the salty side to be fully appreciated. Besides, the pork was so great, that I didn't really want to dwell on the possible negative aspects of the plate. The plate has a vegetable side of jupiter turnips and (what Damon called) Joan + Elanora parsnips in the lower left.  Finally, the plate is finished with a single baby Brussels sprout that was slow roasted for two hours. It was a very nice detail.
-- another palate cleanser: roasted yellow peach puree with apricot and stevia tea syrup (three portions pictured)

Course VI: Sweet dessert (six portions pictured)
The desserts start coming. First, a cold dish of roasted strawberries with wild pink currant granita and a
wedge of homemade pastry dough.
Next, trio of whipped chocolate. This is a small glass of 1/3 bittersweet, 1/3 semisweet, and 1/3 milk chocolate whipped with some added milk. The treat is topped with a freshly picked black raspberry that Damon literally ran out to the garden between courses to pick. A very nice touch. (six portions pictured)

Course VII: Savory dessert
Next, a communal plate for the table with a loaf of French bread and selection of cheeses. Savovaryoh Ben cheese, cow's milk Brie, la tome cheese (from the Gouda family), a Roquefort style bleu, and a sheep’s milk ricotta. The selection was good, but once I tasted the bleu, I was hooked. It was really fantastic and I enjoyed every bite of it. (communal plates pictured)

To wrap up the meal he brought out an assortment of dried cherries, dried apricots, strawberries, and green Cayuga grapes. As a final palate cleanser, the meal is capped with a Cayuga red grape sorbet with sugarless syrup.

With a seating at 5:00pm, we were leaving the restaurant at 10:00pm. For sure the longest meal we have ever experienced. As we get ready to leave, I reflect that even though there was a lot of food here tonight, I am full, perhaps very much so, but I am not uncomfortably full.  One of the things Damon is very proud of is that he does not use butter or cream in his sauces. Opting instead for things like powders as thickening agents and ingredients such as rutabaga stock to hold sauces together.  If he did use butter and cream, he contends, everyone would be full by the end of the third course.  Damon is probably the singularly most passionate person I have ever encountered when it comes to food. His enthusiasm is infectious and you can't help but be fascinated by his use of ingredients that you either didn't know existed (gem studded puffball mushrooms), or did not know were edible (sumac powder, pine needle brine). He makes his courses big enough to enjoy the ingredients, but small enough to be able to eat more of what's ahead. This aspect is where the contrast is apparent between this meal and our experience the previous night at "8 Tables". Where Damon gave you a lot of little courses (not all small, but many limited to a bite size) the previous meal was several courses of what we can only assume, by the size of them, are the standard sized portions served to everyone with a couple of chef specialties added in. I have an appreciation for both ways, and at this point, to compare Damon to anyone else is very difficult. This guy really is a one-of-a-kind in a business where few people stand out. I would go back to either place in a heartbeat, just probably not in the same weekend. And, although the food was really what it was all about, the company at both dinners is what made this the best kind of birthday weekend for me.

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