(The original version, with bigger photos, is here.)
14 July 2006 – Willamette Valley, Oregon
Joel Palmer House – For some people, the Willamette Valley isn’t about grapes at all. It’s about mushrooms, which grow wild, and…apparently…in some quantity, or so one must conclude from their ubiquity on local menus. But no one does as much with as many champignons as this restaurant, yet another set in a converted house of considerable charm. Not that we get to enjoy much of that charm, because we sit outside. It’s a beautiful evening; why waste it?
Service is a bit on the quick side, and since we’re ordering the five-course mushroom tasting menu, this rapidity does impact our ability to finish each dish. However, it’s hard to find fault with a restaurant that passes out free glasses of Argyle when one of the managers learns he’s just become an uncle.
Argyle 2001 Brut (Willamette Valley) – Frothy. Tart citrus and more lurid tropical notes dominate a wine playing host to a war between simplicity and goofiness. It’s pleasant, but easily forgotten.
The tasting menu works like this: a diner selects a “main” course from the (already mushroom-dominated, though there are a scant few exceptions) regular menu, while the chef constructs the rest of the meal based on what’s been freshly-foraged. It’s an exciting concept, and we do love mushrooms, so…
Amuse bouche: mushroom risotto. The concentration of mushroom flavor here is almost unfathomable (one presumes mushroom stock of a rare intensity), though this is balanced by a heady dose of piquant parmesan. The risotto is done in the drier American style, in which the rice is a bit softer and the runoff less pronounced. But it’s no less excellent for it.
First course #1: porcini chowder. All the classic elements of pure New England chowder (well, minus the potatoes) are here, with the creamy and sweetly earthy power of porcini in their thick dairy sludge dominating the little counterpoints of corn. Delicious.
First course #2: mushroom soup (from an old family recipe). Theresa receives this as an alternative to my chowder…and while my dish is nearly flawless, this one is flawless. A beautifully-integrated mélange of flavors literally explodes with every bit of fungal earthiness one can imagine. It’s salty, but not overly so, and I could happily eat bowl after bowl of this. But then, I’d miss out on the rest of the meal. Pure umami, available by the spoonful and growing under a tree near you.
Second course: three-mushroom tart. Simplicity works best here, showing off the quality of a blend of mushrooms that, contrary to many such tarts I’ve had, are not variably overcooked. Perfect.
Third course: baked portobello with gruyere. Decent, but nothing special.
Fourth course: sautéed morels with crisp potato curls. Just when the earthy intensity of the mushrooms – and these are pretty spectacular morels – threatens to overwhelm, these crisp little shreddings of potato liven things up. Sort of a root vegetable intermezzo, if you will.
Fifth course: local (from nearby Carlton) fallow venison served with juniper-infused red cabbage and black trumpet mushrooms. My most disappointing dish, and one I do not care for at all. The problem here is the cabbage; an extremely sour and over-flavored expression that reminds me of an Vienna-style Christmas dish cranked up to eleven (or perhaps about eighteen). It obliterates the mushrooms, and comes very close to muting any positive qualities of the venison as well. What’s the point? Theresa opts for a ’shroom-less rack of lamb with jalapeño cornbread, which is quite nice but very spicy…and also a huge amount of food to appear this late in a tasting menu.
Sixth course: candy cap mushroom ice cream, with caramelized candy caps and candy cap cheesecake, plus a hazelnut/chocolate torte with raspberry sauce. Now, careful readers will note that the five-course tasting menu has, including the amuse bouche, become seven courses comprising nine different dishes. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but given the quantities involved it’s worth noting. More importantly, this is an incredible dish, utilizing the natural, maple-like sweetness of this rather unique mushroom to stunning effect. The non-mushroom torte is awfully nice as well, with a better balance between the nuts and the chocolate than such concoctions usually possess, and showing admirable restraint with the sauce.
All of this is paired with a selection from a very long wine list, jammed with local specialties (and, of course, very heavy on the pinot noir, which can and does excel with the mushroom-dominated cuisine) and littered with mini-verticals. However, the markups range from large to huge, and there’s very little that comes with a “name” or an appealing number of years in bottle to be had for less than three digits. It’s not that there’s a lack of bottlings at more reasonable prices, it’s just that with a list like this, one hopes to be able to drink something not currently (and widely) commercially available without sending the tariff into the Michelin-starred range. We have a long, friendly, but ultimately frustrating dialogue with a waiter who presents himself as the wine guy for the evening, though he seems unable to find something to our tastes (all his suggestions are way, way above our oak/extraction thresholds) without several consultative trips to the kitchen…and even then, his suggestions are not really what we’re looking for. Lacking expert local guidance, we turn to a bulkier variation on an old friend.
Domaine Coteau 2002 Pinot Noir “Reserve” (Yamhill County) – Solid, with dark fruit and black, post-forest fire undergrowth. A dense, muscular structure surrounds the brooding fruit, and there’s incredible aging potential here. Right now, however, it’s all a bit much to take, and requires aggressive food to keep it in check.
Coffee is weak…not that it much matters, because we’re stuffed to the gills. I take a flyer on a glass of dessert wine, though in the end I wish I’d not bothered.
Sineann 2002 Riesling Medici (Willamette Valley) – The restaurant’s wine list calls this “late harvest,” but I can find no evidence that such a wine exists in the Sineann portfolio, leaving this as the only identifiable alternative. Anyway, it’s out of balance, showing sweet lime, lemon and green grape with spiky acid that’s completely unable to beat back a thick, goopy sludge. Those for whom intensity is the only worthwhile virtue in wine will find this exemplary. But it’s not good. It’s not good at all.
The final verdict on the Joel Palmer House is this: the chef has a clear specialty, and like many other such chefs can appear to lose interest in dishes that don’t fit the theme. Almost any dish with mushrooms will be somewhere between good and extraordinary, while other dishes are decidedly more variable. And the salt-averse will want to be wary here. However, the relentless brilliance of the majority of the mushroom dishes makes this one of those meals that surpasses its objective quality, making it truly memorable. That’s something that even many of the best restaurants in the world can’t say, and something to be cherished.