What’s on the menu at Falmouth’s Buffalo Jump? ‘Weird food that only weirdos like’
EAST FALMOUTH — We’ve toured the grounds, met the chickens and goats, tasted the strawberries, and picked the peas. Now we are seated at wood tables in the back of the general store, looking out screen windows as the sunlight wanes over the fields of Coonamessett Farm. Chef Brandon Baltzley appears at our table, a poster boy for growth — dreads sprouting from the back of his buzzed head, bright tattoos of beets, peas, and peppers blooming beyond the margins of his shirt. He sets down one of the many dishes that make up a meal at the Buffalo Jump, the BYOB popup-turned-restaurant he and wife Laura Higgins-Baltzley run here. A cafe by day, it serves tasting menus in several formats at night.
The dish might be “White Kim Chi: A Study in the Removal of Aggression,” a bite-size bundle of kimchi, cooked down until caramelized and wrapped in a tatsoi leaf. Adorned with tiny blossoms, it is served in a flowered saucer in a pool of 7UP poured tableside by server/farm tour guide/student of agriculture Linh Thao Pham: Korean cooking meets French-style service.
It might be “Sweet Peas Were the Kind of Flowers Fairies Slept In,” a cracker of wild rice (it tastes like fry bread) topped in a riot of pea blossoms, pea pods, horseradish, lemon jam, mint, and . . . clams? Somehow this hodgepodge of bright, vegetal, sweet, and briny flavors is pleasing rather than dissonant.
It won’t be a lobster roll.
Hyperlocal, labor-intensive, bristling with ideas, a meal at the Buffalo Jump falls somewhere between Noma Cape Cod (Baltzley has staged at the influential Copenhagen restaurant) and a class trip designed to teach city kids where their food comes from. Or maybe it’s more like a punk-rock, D.I.Y., on-a-shoestring Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In other words, it is the latest step in designing the kind of culinary home — not just a restaurant, a place — it seems Baltzley has yearned for much of his career.
The chef has cooked his way through New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh, burning bridges all the way, earning a reputation for brilliance and self-destruction. He played drums in metal bands; he wrote a memoir, “Nine Lives: A Chef’s Journey From Chaos to Control,” detailing his experiences with drug addiction. He founded a roving culinary collective called CRUX. His restaurant-slash-utopian-community TMIP, on another farm, in Michigan City, Ind., was shut down over permitting issues after a little more than a week. (Its initials stood for “The Most Important Part.”) Locally, he worked at Ribelle and Cafe ArtScience before relocating to the Cape to open The 41-70 in Woods Hole. He and Higgins-Baltzley, who had been executive sous chef at Ribelle, were expecting a baby. She is from Falmouth, where her mother, Anne Konner-Higgins, runs Peck O’ Dirt Bakery (now partnered with the Buffalo Jump, the project that followed Baltzley’s short-lived stint in Woods Hole). Family, a farm: Maybe this feels like home.
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Restaurants all over the country have reenvisioned and revitalized the cooking of their regions. In these parts, chefs have embraced the local and seasonal, foraging and fermenting with the best of them. But I keep waiting for someone to serve up something that feels like a definitive New New England Cuisine. Maybe we are post-that moment, into one where we understand that is simply too broad: My New England (or Great Plains, or Pacific Northwest, or Hawaii . . . ) isn’t yours. Nonetheless, the Buffalo Jump takes a stab at something like it, homing in on the Cape, fertile ground both literally and metaphorically. Its experiments don’t always succeed from an eating point of view, but conceptually, intellectually, they engage and challenge.
At TMIP, Baltzley, a white guy with dreadlocks, offered testing menus inspired by his explorations of Native American cooking — pemmican, bison, berries. He’s backed off of that at the Buffalo Jump, although the name refers to the Native American practice of herding bison off the edge of a cliff in order to kill the injured animals en masse. It’s a far-flung choice for a restaurant so informed by its microclimate: The Buffalo Jump gets produce from Coonamessett and other local farms, shellfish from Sippewissett Oysters, foraged ingredients from Poplar, a company for which Baltzley has also gathered food. It’s all so grown-from-this-ground that at first we assume the seasoning (nori, bee pollen, powdered nasturtium) sprinkled on a stunning crudite platter is dirt. Farm vegetables and flowers are arranged around a dish of “aioli that tastes like sunshine,” flower petals rimming the bowl’s edge so it looks like a small sunflower. The ants that crawl from a squash blossom are actually ants, it turns out, but such is the Buffalo Jump that we feel delighted by their slow emergence rather than horrified: It seems somehow right.
The lines aren’t always so blurred. Shellfish arrive on a bed of seaweed that smells like low tide. Pickled mussels and scallops cured in kombu and washed in seawater are served in sheep’s yogurt and dill, overwhelmingly briny. (Baltzley later says the effect they were aiming for was “shellfish guts.” Well done.) There’s a spread made from cabbage and dulse that approaches the experience of eating an extremely ripe cheese, then just keeps on going. It’s too stinky, too runny. Lobster appears just once, in a juice pairing, the Lobster Julius. Very clever, but this riff on the mall favorite tastes like a citrus-and-bait milkshake.
Some dishes are just lovely: those sweet peas, those crudites, a foie gras terrine served with summer truffle and strawberries, some in strawberry gastrique, others with a porcini-cocoa butter shell. But it is the less standardly lovely that best convey the Buffalo Jump’s aesthetic: “Painting It Black,” a dark, rustic bowl filled with even darker ingredients — nori, cherry, tuna, tuna blood. “Scallops Swimming in Butter,” the shellfish warmed in a bath of beurre monté, scattered with caviar that gets lost in all the richness, scented romantically with grilled beach rose but gritty with bits of bitter black walnut. “That Duck in the Salt Marsh I Told You About,” a starkly plated apostrophe of dry-aged duck — skin crisped, bacon-esque — alongside cabbage-wrapped sardine and rice, sprinkled with popped sorghum and drizzled in liver sauce. A dessert that appears to be topped in beer foam: It’s this year’s mulberries in a fermentation of last year’s mulberries with toasted yeast ice cream and whipped strawberry lambic.
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I want fried chicken. Or maybe a pizza bagel. At some point in the meal I find myself longing for an anchoring intermezzo, basic and delicious, to acknowledge that what we are eating is strange and not so simple: “weird food that only weirdos like,” as a recent job posting calls it. A dessert on the current early-summer menu, “Do Your Ears Hang Low?,” sums up the experience. It’s a popsicle with three different flavors: caramelized goat’s milk, lemon verbena, and sheep’s yogurt. The top and bottom layers are pure, overwhelming barnyard. The middle is icy, herbal loveliness. The boundary-pushing edges earn our respect, but it is only the center we are able to savor. A meal at the Buffalo Jump is sometimes like trying to eat a popsicle from the middle: more complicated than it needs to be. The restaurant has a tendency to outthink itself with all of its interesting thoughts.
Meals close with somewhat homier sweets: a green sassafras tart, the pastry shell expertly made; an excellent sourdough doughnut with caramelized goat’s milk. These help ground the menu. We are sent home with a generous scroll of truly delicious fruit leather. Weird is cool, but delicious remains pretty darn important.
It is easy to imagine someone leaving angry after dinner. This isn’t the kind of food Cape Cod tourists flock to. On the other hand, there are people who fly to Copenhagen for dinner. Falmouth is just a short drive away.
Massachusetts cuisine isn’t currently having its most exciting or uplifting moment. So many of our stories are laments: the last maître d’, the closing of iconic restaurant after iconic restaurant. It feels a real relief to see someone pushing forward, working to invent something. The Buffalo Jump is an act of willful optimism — a group of idealists collectively driving themselves off a cliff to find out where they land.
THE BUFFALO JUMP
277 Hatchville Road, East Falmouth, 508-361-2361, www.thebuffalojump.com. All major credit cards accepted (purchase tickets for dinner in advance online). Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Dinner: Three-course tasting menu $55, 14-course tasting menu $80, chef’s table $110. Breakfast $3.25-$11.95. Lunch $3.95-$12.95.
Hours Tasting menus Sun-Tue 5-8:30 p.m. Jamaican buffet Wed 5-8:30 p.m. Breakfast and lunch Sun-Wed and Fri-Sat 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Thu.
Noise level A random soundtrack (Oasis! The Muppets!) and birdsong.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary
★ ★ ★ Excellent
★ ★ Good
(No stars) Poor