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East End Eats: A Taste of Serenity

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 10:16
Shou Sugi Ban's consulting chef, Mads Refslund, and the spa's garden manager, Albert Zielinski, in the kitchen garden on Saturday.
Laura Donnelly

The first time I went to a spa I had a very difficult time accepting the high price. The place was Miraval in Arizona and the food was included, so I felt compelled to snack, snack, snack, gobble, gobble, and smoothie the days away. I participated in the woo woo activities, hiked in the desert, and ended up enjoying and appreciating every moment. I also learned that you can take many of the habits and practices home with you, making the time spent there very worthwhile. Since that initial experience, I have had the good fortune to return to Miraval and to visit a few other wellness/mindfulness spa-resorts and am now well versed in the techniques and goals of the various establishments.

A few days ago I was invited to experience a "sacred sound journey" and lunch at the fairly new (opened last summer) Shou Sugi Ban House, a Japanese-inspired "luxury wellness resort and spa" in Water Mill. The big attraction for me was the fact that the consulting chef, co-founder of Noma (!), Mads Refslund, was on site cooking.

To begin, you fill out a bunch of waivers and forms online, not sure if this is due to Covid-19 or the fact that the co-founder Amy Cherry-Abitbol is a lawyer. You also choose your menu for lunch in advance. Upon arrival, your temperature and blood oxygen level are taken. Masks are, of course, required at all times, except when eating.

I must say, first of all, that although Shou Sugi Ban is on Montauk Highway next to the Parrish Art Museum and is a mere three acres, it is stunningly beautiful, laid out in a way that allows you to wander gravel paths through simple but elegant landscaping, pass by a few fountains, and admire the modern wood buildings.

In the back are 13 guest rooms surrounding a saltwater pool. There is giant Buddha at the entrance, a remnant from the property's previous life as a sculpture garden or part of a nursery, depending on who you ask, a few other plunge pools, and a watsu pool. Watsu is a form of aquatic bodywork. You are cradled and stretched by a therapist in warm chest-deep water.

Phoebe Briggs, the program manager, gave me a tour before my guest arrived and she had answers to all of my questions. She was the consummate hospitality pro!

Next was the sound journey with the creative director, Jodie Webber. It is difficult to explain a sound journey, but you lie down, close your eyes, and the rest is gongs, singing bowls, tuning forks, ancient musical instruments, and scents. The vibrations and sounds can have a healing effect -- energizing, balancing, soothing, and/or meditative. My experience was a feeling of dark waves passing over and a few bird chirps (this was actually a siren on Route 27, to remind us of where we were). It was thoroughly weird and enjoyable. I love this stuff!

Lunch preparations in Shou Sugi Ban's open kitchen, where Mads Refslund, the consulting chef, was in residence. Laura Donnelly

Next was lunch, right next to the open kitchen. There were pitchers of a bright blue beverage at each table. It tasted of lemon verbena tea but the magical blue hue ingredient was butterfly pea flower. When you squeezed a lemon wedge into the tea, it turned a beautiful violet.

We began with small crisp flatbreads topped with paper-thin slices of summer squash and bright yellow mustard green flowers. There was a layer of a mysterious nut butter that I incorrectly guessed was almond or sunflower but it was in fact freshly ground pumpkin seeds. Delicious. I then had a light and citrusy salad of endives and walnuts. Jennifer had grilled avocado halves with a dashi-ponzu dipping sauce, also delicious.

My dainty main course was a sunny-side-up duck egg surrounded by a green salad with nasturtium leaves and bits of asparagus. Jennifer was presented with a bowl of brightly colored flowers, a pitcher of cold chunky tomato soup, and some slices of a dense nut bread spread with more tomato pulp. It isn't quite tomato season yet, but these tomatoes (from Green Thumb) were worthy of this underdressed presentation.

A cold tomato soup in a beaker was poured over a bowl of brightly colored flowers. Laura Donnelly

For dessert we had a freshly spun cherry sorbet topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of sour cherry powder. The meal was virtuous, spa-light, and visually beautiful.

Next was a quick chat with the chef Mads Refslund and a visit to the kitchen garden. Mr. Reflslund comes to help at Shou Sugi Ban House quarterly, and spends a week or so each time. The onsite chef de cuisine is Sabdiel Cortes, who no doubt does a wonderful job but was enjoying some much-needed time off.

Mr. Refslund was an original co-founder of the world-famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, along with Rene Redzepi. The restaurant was revolutionary and garnered many "best restaurant in the world" awards. It wasn't a Scandinavian smorrebrod and gravlax kind of place, it was ash and elk, candied pine cones, venus clams with fudge, and kelp ice cream, things foraged and dug. They were 24 years old at the time and eventually broke up the partnership because they weren't getting along anymore. They are now back to being best friends. Mr. Refslund's next project, ready in two years, will be a restaurant within a kitchen in Greenpoint. There will be no waiters; guests will be served by the cooks and chefs. "Who knows the food better? The person who cooked it!" he explained.

As we wandered through the garden with the head gardener, Albert Zielinski, Mr. Refslund plucked this and that, commanding me to "Eat this! Crush this one in your hands!" Holding a notebook and pen, trying to take pictures and notes, and wearing a mask as this very brisk and enthusiastic Danish chef kept shoving little green leaves and pink and yellow flowers at me was pretty funny. I'm pretty proud that I could identify almost every bit of herbal flora.

Has Shou Sugi Ban House appeared at the right time? At the beginning of the pandemic it closed. Then the owners considered renting it out as a whole property for the whole summer, and now it appears they are cautiously open in a limited capacity, as it should be.

To pass through the gates and enter the serene environment is immediately therapeutic and calming. Yes, it's expensive, but considering our current state, anything that helps us is to be applauded.

The name Shou Sugi Ban, which literally means "burnt cedar board," is a reference to the ancient Japanese technique of charring wood to preserve and strengthen it. This place is new, and was conceived, created, and designed by women. Overall, the place is run by young women. It is the perfect escape for a day, or a few nights.

"Kachou Fuugetsu" is a Japanese expression that translates literally to: "flower, bird, wind, moon." It means "experience the beauties of nature, and in doing so learn about yourself."

You can do it here, right on Route 27.

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