For some, mushrooms immediately evoke images of gnarly fungus growths or next-generation hippies acting like fools at Dave Matthews Band concerts. But to the foodie, mushrooms are a way to ground a dish with rich, earthy and unique flavors. From morel to crimini, oyster to shiitake, candy-cap to porcini, mushrooms bring with them the terroir of their respective origins, immediately adding regional authenticity to any dish. So where do you get the good 'shrooms in Chicagoland?
Etouffee z' Herbes at Big Jones
How can anyone improve upon a dish that is named after the French word for "smother"? Etouffee, a Creole classic, is usually prepared with crawfish or chicken, built on a base of blonde roux, the "holy trinity" (that would be green bell pepper, onion and celery) and garlic. Big Jones' meatless variety ($14) turns to 'shrooms for its rich, sumptuous flavor. Earthy crimini and exotic shiitake mushrooms mingle with eggplant and country greens in a dark gumbo roux, resulting in a nuanced entree that injects the taste of New Orleans with Asian flavors.
This daring corruption of a beloved Southern staple is impeccably pulled off and pulled together by Louisiana popcorn rice. A bayou delicacy, popcorn rice actually originated from a strain of rice that had such a horrible smell that it "would run you out of the kitchen." Since those days, the white rice has been perfected; still aromatic, it now smells like popcorn while it's cooking.
Grilled Portobello Sandwich at Jacky's Bistro
To the vegetarian what filet mignon is to the carnivore, the flavorful, meaty portobello holds its own in a sandwich—no small feat for a fungus. These oversize, fleshy caps are actually just crimini mushrooms left to mature another few days (the little guys can quadruple in size during that time). Those days make all the difference; unlike its delicate little bro, crimini, the portobello is firm, earthy and dense enough to throw on a barbeque.
Just in time for summer, Jacky's Bistro serves up a grilled portobello sandwich ($10.95) on an onion roll. The smoky portobello steak is accented with an aromatic basil dressing and sweet Gruyere cheese; this French take on a veggie classic is a gourmet lunch for any vegetarian, but substantial enough to replace the carnivore's cheeseburger.
Risotto con funghi porcini at Caro Mio
Nothing conjures the essence of rustic Italian fare quite like the porcini. Versatile enough to hold its own in hearty stews or alongside a grilled Tuscan steak, these meaty little devils are also dried to be used year-round in sauces and risottos. Caro Mio has perfected the fine craft of porcini prep, adding the delicate imported funghi to a few noteworthy dishes.
The pappardelle con porcini ($16.95) with a saute of borolo wine, parmesan and fresh cream is worth a try, but for a crave-worthy entree, opt for the risotto con funghi porcini ($16.95). A fragrant pile of fluffy risotto laced with earthy imported porcini, this simple dish manages to skirt the line between delicate and indulgent with authentic Italian appeal.
Yunnanese Chicken and Mushroom box at Spring World
Every year in August, right after the rains let up, the Yunnan region of China erupts with over 800 varieties of wild mushrooms. Is it any wonder that Yunnanese cuisine is built around these ever-abundant 'shrooms? Although finding authentic fare from this region can be a trial in Chicago, Chinatown's Spring World sports a stellar mushroom menu. Not yet translated into English, it can be intimidating to order from, but just tell the folks you want the "Fresh Chicken in a Bamboo Box" ($13.99).
Served in a green bamboo log, this stew-like dish contains braised chicken and seven kinds of wild mushrooms, including Chinese black truffles and matsutake, the pine mushroom that is the primary export of the region. Aromas of ginger and anise waft from this wonderfully complex sauce, and there's even a little kick from Chinese peppers. Said to be good for clearing the skin, lowering cholesterol and soothing a sore throat, the bamboo box offers taste and function.