AN early breakfast for a few friends and neighbors at James (Buddy) Haller's house consists of Irish oatmeal, grapefruit juice (from concentrate), and decaffeinated coffee. Good, stick-to-the-ribs stuff on that bitter-cold morning, but not the most exciting fare from the chef of what may be one of the most imaginative restaurants on the New England map. Haller dismissed the meal with a wave of his spoon and the comment ``I don't usually eat breakfast.''
With his very large, black dog, ``Truffle'' (who happens to be half German Shepherd and half wolf) grinning at his side, who was to complain?
It's quite a different tune at the Blue Strawbery Restaurant on 29 Ceres Street. In this restored 1797 ship's chandlery in downtown Portsmouth, Buddy pulls out more stops than it takes to play an entire opus of Bach preludes and fugues.
For 15 years, he has been dazzling his diners with the likes of Carrot and Saffron Cream Soup, Cornish Hens in Lobster and Sour Cream Sauce, Roast Lamb with Pumpkin, Honey, and Soy Sauce, and Filet of Beef with Peanut Butter Sauce. Strawberries -- red, not blue -- are an obvious and usual dessert.
The menu changes daily, and has every day since the restaurant opened.
There's a lesson here for anyone who enjoys cooking but may be intimidated when the heat's on in the kitchen. Haller never took a cooking lesson in his life. In fact, he says that before opening the Blue Strawbery Restaurant he never cooked for more than a handful of friends and relatives. As a boy in Chicago, he got up on day to go to school and just kept walking. He ended up in Florida. So much for his formal education!
Haller is living proof that you don't need a diploma to chop up a duxelles. ``Cooking,'' he says, ``should be as natural as eating.'' True, but a double dollop of imagination does help.
Haller doesn't cook by the book. Not cookbooks anyway. He doesn't bother with recipes. It's not that he doesn't read, he just thinks they are of questionable value, as the titles of his two cookbooks attest: ``The Blue Strawbery Cookbook, or Cooking (Brillantly) Without Recipes'' (Harvard Common Press, 1976); and ``Another Blue Strawbery, More Brilliant Cooking Without Recipes'' (Harvard Common Press, 1983).
``Recipes tend to be limiting. How many times have you not tried a recipe because it calls for, say, basil, and all you have is oregano? Or you're having six people for dinner and the recipe ``serves four.'' Sure, recipes are sometimes helpful, he acknowledges, but too often relying entirely on a one is like painting by numbers. ``Why are people afraid to make something taste better than the recipe sounds?'' he asks.
It may not seem obvious by the menu, but Haller insists his style of cooking is simple, and based somewhat on Shaker cookery. ``Taking something ordinary and making it extrordinary'' as he puts it.
Haller encourages everyday home cooks to shop with imagination.
``Go out tomorrow and buy something you've never cooked or maybe even eaten before. Like kohlrabi. A delicious, undiscovered vegetable!. . . If you get bored with your cooking, it's your own fault,'' he says. ``What this world does not need is another meatloaf!''
Haller may serve the public, but he says that he cooks for himself first. ``Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's the chance you take, but if you let the public dictate your style of cooking, you become a fad chef.
``I admit I've done some pretty far-out things, but right now,'' he says with a wink, ``I'm getting a kick out of trying to make a perfect B'earnaise.'' Just don't be surprised if that perfect B'earnaise shows up on a plate of saut'eed rabbit livers marinated in a rasberry vinaigrette and placed on a chiffonard of radicchio. ``Or maybe B'earnaise topping a small snail pizza. ``Yes,'' he says ``that sounds pretty good, Snail Pizza with B'earnaise.''
Lately Haller has stepped away from the kitchen a few days a week to devote more time to his work at the nearby Seacoast Hospice, placing his toque on the talented head of Phillip McGuire, who has been with the restaurant for six or seven years.
Also on the job are Gene Brown and Mark Burke, co-owners of the restaurant with Haller. The three-man team has been together since the Blue Strawbery's doors first opened in 1970. Mr. Brown takes care of advertising and public relations, while Mr. Burke is business manager and bookkeeper.
Haller still keeps his finger in the pot discussing menus and shopping and steps in two or three days a week to cook.
A recent Thursday evening in the kitchen produced a clear rich duck broth with sun-dried tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms as a starter, followed by a sorbet, then a choice of three entrees -- duck, Softshell Crabs with Dijon Mustard, and Veal Stuffed with Herbs, Fruit, and Sauerkraut. After that, dessert -- a perfectly curled lettuce leaf filled with exactly 36 fresh raspberries flown in from Chile.
The Blue Strawbery has two sittings a night. Reservations are advisable and prices run about $32 per person.