Portland's chefs play with mushrooms

Tasting the fruit of the spore
By BRIAN DUFF  |  August 3, 2011

food_mushrooms_480
THE RAW INGREDIENTS A variety of local mushrooms.

Being a chef is a risky business. Hands are burned, fingers chopped, savings decimated, marriages ruined, and waitpersons impregnated. Perhaps the worst risk is the embarrassment of serving bad food. The solution is simple: Good chefs taste the food carefully before they serve it. The system works — never more so then when two Portland chefs poisoned themselves, rather than their customers, when they bought the wrong wild mushrooms from a forager. That 2008 incident launched the legislative initiative to certify mushroom foragers and handlers chronicled elsewhere in this issue.

For the risk-averse, the safest option is to forage for mushrooms on the menus of local restaurants. Ambiguity is part of the thrill for traditional foragers, but for those foraging in Portland restaurants, it is more of a necessary evil. This is in large part due to the virtual domination of Rick Tibbetts-provided mushrooms among the Portland restaurants that take their fungi seriously. Tibbetts's mushrooms, customers are usually told, are a mix of foraged and cultivated. Could Tibbetts, based in Scarborough, possibly be mixing the two? I can't believe he commingles them in his labeling. Most likely the restaurants are cultivating this ambiguity themselves — a woeful distortion of the culture of secrecy that cloaks the practice of foraging for mushrooms.

It was a bit misleading for David's Restaurant to offer an "exotic mushroom ravioli" last week that was actually filled with the very common white button mushroom. It was served in a light broth with big pieces of the only slightly more exotic oyster and shiitake mushrooms. The overall effect of the dish was a bit like a stroganoff, especially as the snow-white balls of goat cheese dissolved into the broth, giving it a creamy quality. The oyster mushroom itself offered a mix of textures, from the fleshy chew near the base to the crunchy tips.

Blue Spoon is the most reliable restaurant in Portland for the mushroom lover. A side of mushrooms, sautéed with just enough herbs to enhance their native flavors, is almost always available. Last week the restaurant had a gorgeous variety, the highlight of which might have been a maitake (hen of the woods) with a chewy-tendrilly texture and a rich dark flavor. There was also a mushroom risotto, available as an appetizer or a huge entrée serving, which highlighted the range of flavors mushrooms offer. The stock of porcini and black trumpet mushrooms infused the dish with a slight sour-umami flavor. A mix of shiitake, maitake, oyster, and hon shimeji mushrooms lingered in the risotto. Each piece was large enough to chew and savor on its own, with flavors ranging from the sweet oyster to the earthier shimeji.

The most accessible mushroom standby in Portland is breakfast sandwich number 3 at Local Sprouts. Sautéed thick slices of Tibbetts shiitake are served on a wheaty homemade English muffin with a fried egg and cheese. The mushroom, complemented by a bit of sautéed spinach, gives the whole sandwich a dark savory flavor, and lends a nice meaty-chewy texture to things. It meshes well with the earthy flavors of the bread, and the richness of the egg and cheese. The sandwich compares favorably to one of the recent lunch options at Aurora Provisions nearby: a pastrami panini with local oyster mushrooms. The mushroom added texture, but its flavors got lost between the horseradish and the salty meat.

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