Local chefs reveal the wild mushroom dishes that get them hot under the culinary collar.
Thursday, February 1, 2001
Fungi Jumpin'': Whaling Station Chef David Stember whips up wild mushroom pasta dishes to the delight of guests and co-workers.Like so many of our foodstuffs, one wonders what drove the early epicurean explorers to try eating those cute, almost cuddly sentinels of sensory splendor we now call mushrooms. Since only about 2,000 of the 120,000 species of fungi are edible, the chances are great that many first bites provided out-of-body (in some instances, lights out) experiences for our cave-dwelling forebears.
Today, fortunately, there are very good purveyors of wild mushrooms (many of which also are cultivated), so restaurants everywhere have access to all the cool varieties. Also, many local chefs and proprietors are pretty avid stalkers of the little beasts.
Chef/TV personality/wild mushroom hunter John Pisto--who has tracked fungi in China, Corsica and all over Northern California--collects and serves at least 20 different types of mushrooms at his restaurant. "I''m using nine or 10 kinds of wild mushrooms right now," says the Whaling Station''s decorated head honcho, "many of which are unfamiliar to most people. To me, it''s like catching your own fish, or hunting your own game, then preparing it."
Self-proclaimed "mild-mannered mushroom picker from Monterey" Csaba Ajan, managing partner of Carmel''s Portabella and the Polo Club, recalls being run off a plot of land at gun point while trying to find the little critters. His Polo Club features a special wild mushroom bisque with Solera sherry this time of year. At Portabella, Chef Teodulo Pinto prepares tortona alla portabella, a sandwich of grilled portabella mushrooms, goat cheese and homemade pizza bread. Another Pinto signature dish is a warm wild mushroom Napoleon, rich with portabellas, crimini and porcini.
At Castroville''s La Scuola Ristorante, Chef Chuck Hunsaker favors fresh chanterelles and a brandy cream sauce for his rack of lamb. He uses the mushrooms with veal, too, but substituting sherry for brandy. He''ll also sauté a mixture of cèpes (French for porcini), crimini, morels and oyster mushrooms with shallots, white wine, garlic and a touch of butter, then serve the combo as is or atop chicken--or just about anything else one can eat.
Owner/chef Surut Tom Somboonsarn of Seaside''s Barn Thai Restaurant includes mushrooms in many of his stir-fried dishes. They also appear in tom kha kai and tom yum, two noodle soups that are Thai menu staples.
Over at the Pajaro Street Grill in Salinas, chef/owner Deamer Dunn is something of a mushroom scholar. His restaurant''s Web site--www.psgrill.net--offers a whole section about mushrooms. According to the site, references to mushrooms were made as far back as ancient Egypt. More currently, Dunn feels that nothing really beats the classic combination of wild mushrooms, garlic, parsley and butter.
Swoon for the Misbegotten
At Alberto''s on Forest in Pacific Grove, diners swoon over the irrepressible Chef Alberto''s beautiful funghi all marsala, mushrooms sautéed in very good olive oil with garlic, a touch of lemon, salt and pepper. Badabing. Fungi also play a major role in his classic stuffed mushrooms oreganato, and the chef will occasionally add chanterelles to his to-die-for cannelloni.
Across the street at Fifi''s, Chef Jerman Perez goes with a portabella-stuffed filet mignon that is grilled and served with a brandy sauce. He also likes pasta dishes involving the delectable combination of shiitakes and duck.
Fresh Cream Executive Chef Greg Lizza loves serving local chanterelles with venison, sweet potatoes and a demi-glacé at his Monterey eatery. He''ll sear cèpes and foie gras and partner them with a huckleberry sauce. Lizza also uses black trumpet mushrooms to add color, texture and flavor to lighter dishes, and a rich mushroom stock forms the backbone of his truffled mushroom risotto.
Down the street at Stokes Adobe, Brandon Miller is into open-faced ravioli with chanterelles, Crezensa cheese, cranberries and sage. He''ll slice cèpes-- "They''re like meat," he says--and grill them with olive oil and thyme. Of course, scrambled eggs and morels are a Miller meal staple.
At the Sardine Factory, Executive Chef Robert Mancuso sides his roast rack of lamb with chanterelles, yellow foots and fingerling potatoes. He tosses black trumpets into soups and broths, and lightly sautés them to accompany poached seafood. "I like to pop them in toward the end," he says, "since they cook so quickly." He occasionally bakes homemade potato gnocchi in a porcini sauce with Parmesan cheese.
At Old Town Salinas'' Golden Fish, that temple of good vibes led by chef/co-owner Reynaldo Mendoza, mushrooms play a major role in mar de Cortez, a fish platter with mussels, shrimp, scallops, salmon and vegetables. Mendoza also likes to make a zinfandel/mushroom reduction for steak or fish.
Back in Pacific Grove, Bath House Sous Chef Eric Kroucik has wowed Dorothy Maras-Ildiz, director of operations, with a wild mushroom ragout of shiitake and oyster mushrooms that is cooked in an artichoke bottom, the whole thing surrounded by puff pastry and napped with a roasted garlic beurre blanc. Hello.
And at Passionfish, Pacific Grove''s epicurean epicenter, chef/owner/all-around restaurant mad dog Ted Walter waxes eloquent about chanterelle-stuffed ravioli in a veal reduction with truffle oil. He also gets weepy-eyed over his portabellas sautéed with duck stock and then tossed with pasta. Passionfish''s rib-eye steak, possibly the best-tasting steak around, sports a portabella fritter running mate. Chef Ted also likes to stuff morels with sweet peas, dredge ''em and deep fry ''em.
Obviously, area restaurants are heavily involved with those wonderful little flavor puffs we call mushrooms. Now, after writing and re-reading about all these scrumptious dishes, I gotta head out to my next dining adventure and dive into a big bowl of locally grown fungi.