Where to Eat in the Hudson Valley

Foodies of all types have discovered the Valley and its wide variety of top-flight restaurants. One chef even predicts we’ll soon be vying with California’s Napa Valley as a dining destination. Find out what all the buzz is about with these profiles of local eateries

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basement bistro fake eggThe “phony” egg: The “egg white” is preserved cattail shoots with wild wood sorrel-infused grapeseed oil; the “yolk” is a poached sungold tomato that was pickled in rhubarb vinegar; the “pepper” is purple bush bean powder; and the “bacon” is a parsnip that’s been brined in stevia, then dried

Basement Bistro

Destination Dining

Less “where to eat now” than “where to eat in 2013 (if you can score a reservation),” Basement Bistro — a tiny restaurant in Earlton, Greene County — has been a foodies’ secret since before the term “foodies” had gained much currency. Damon Baehrel and his wife, Elizabeth, opened the 20-seat eatery in the refinished basement of their home back in 1989, mainly to allow potential clients of their business, Sagecrest Catering, to sample Baehrel’s cooking.

At the outset, Baehrel offered a menu of what he calls “Native Harvest” cuisine — dishes based on ingredients from his property. But customers were not adventurous. “They wouldn’t order a puffball mushroom with basil wood-smoked corn, or cedarberry-smoked cabbage — it sounds weird. I started sending things out for people to try, and they enjoyed those tastes more than what they’d ordered. So I started the tasting menu only.”

Even now, when we think we’ve heard it all, some of Baehrel’s food sounds a little strange. While he was being interviewed, for instance, he was cooking a rutabaga in soil. “I just dug it up in a block of frozen soil, and put it in a pot in a really slow oven. The soil slowly defrosts. It can take three, four, or even five hours to cook. It’s so much fun!” he exclaims. “It’s in its skin, so the soil doesn’t really touch it,” he adds, for the benefit of the squeamish. The humble rutabaga is a staple for Baehrel, who uses a reduction of it to emulsify most of his sauces. “Everyone uses butter, butter, butter — if you’re doing half a dozen courses, everything tastes like butter. The taste of rutabaga disappears, and it gives a fluffiness and texture that lets the food shine through.”

Now in his mid-40s, Baehrel retired Sagecrest Catering five years ago to devote all his time to the restaurant, newly named Damon Baehrel at Basement Bistro as the first step in phasing out the “bistro” part altogether. “It’s not a bistro, it’s not quick, and it’s not inexpensive,” he explains. “We’re changing it to something more appropriate.”

chef damon baehrelChef Damon Baehrel prides himself on serving what he’s dubbed Native Harvest cuisine: He personally grows, butchers, churns, or forages for nearly all of the items offered on his menu

Naming his restaurant for himself may sound like typical chef ego, but Baehrel is the restaurant — the culinary equivalent of a one-man band. He greets customers, cooks and serves the food, acts as sommelier, and then cleans up when everyone’s gone home. He makes and ages cheeses using local milk; churns butter; bakes breads; buys whole animals from local farms and butchers them; and smokes, dries, and cures charcuterie. On his 11-acre property, Sagecrest Organic Gardens, he grows all the produce he serves, using cold frames and a greenhouse in winter. He taps trees for syrup. He forages for sorrel, ramps, burdock, fiddlehead ferns, mushrooms, and other wild plants many of us may not know are edible (like staghorn sumac and cattail shoots). He preserves, pickles, and dries foods. He uses lemon balm in place of lemons, acorns as a coffee substitute, and pine needles for brine. He makes vinegars “out of everything.” The only ingredients that come off a truck are seafood, and you get the impression he’d fish, too, if he weren’t in landlocked Earlton. “Native Harvest is my way of life,” he says, talking a mile a minute, and brimming with enthusiasm. “I’m obsessed.” And evidently tireless: “I’m one of those people that needs four or five hours sleep at the most.”

Baehrel grew up on Long Island, and summered in the Catskills with his family. His mother was an avid gardener and preserver. “It occurred to me one day that everything we needed was right here,” he observes. A self-taught chef, he says his culinary education began at age 14, when he was working at a local resort as a dishwasher and was promoted to man the egg griddle. “The chef’s name was Bozo. I often had to wake him up because he was hung over. So I’ve no great pedigree in that area.”

The restaurant is small and simple, with gold-colored walls and an oak floor. Guests pay about $128 (excluding wine, tax, and gratuity) for the tasting menu, a four-hour procession of nine to 12 courses served on Villeroy & Boch china, with wines in the appropriate Riedel and Spiegelau stemware. “A true gastronomic adventure,” proclaimed epicurious.com, calling Baehrel a “genius” after listing the meal: “Fragrant lavender bud and parsley flatbread, rich and gamey venison speck, perfectly cooked shrimp atop Savoy cabbage seasoned with smoked cedar berries, earthy wood ear mushroom soup with applewood smoked corn, moist and crackling duck confit served over a smooth purée of jade and butter turnips, and triple chocolate ganache.”

The only help Baehrel has is someone to juggle reservations. And therein lies the drawback. Earlton, which is about 20 minutes from Albany, “is not exactly the culinary capital of the world,” he observes, yet the waiting list for a reservation is very, very long. “People come because food is their hobby and their passion — they’re not just coming to eat. Some fly into Albany; we get West Coast folks all the time. It’s unbelievable ... I haven’t had a cancellation since 2005.”

Why not expand? If all is to be believed, he could make a lot of money. “It wouldn’t be the same,” he replies. “We live below our means. I’m more excited about carrots than caviar — pathetic, I know. But I love what I do. I’m not going to do anything to blow it.”

» Where to eat next: Oriole 9 in Woodstock
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