About this time in April, in most years, chefs and foragers are in the throes of morel madness, a celebration of the elusive and delicate dimpled-cone fungus that is the coveted prince of spring wild mushrooms.
But this is not most years.
The morel has been having a near-M.I.A. moment, thanks to the double whammy of a mild, snow-free winter and the unseasonable early warmth that have both deprived the earth of needed moisture and accelerated the growth of perennial plants (such as mayapple) that ultimately crowd the mushrooms out. That could change with last weekend's rain, but so far, they've been rare.
"I've only found about 70 this year," said Casey Spacht, a farmer and forager at Lancaster Farmacy, who supplies restaurants including Vedge, Zahav, Russet, and R2L. "Last year, I found about 600 by mid-May."
The scarcity has resulted in astronomical prices for morels, from $40 a pound to more than $100 in some cases, which has been prohibitive for many chefs: "I won't touch them until they're $20 or less later in the season," says Josh Lawler, owner of the Farm and Fisherman, which emphasizes seasonal local foods, many of them foraged.
But with spring mushroom cravings still deep in diners' psyche, the morel's disappearing act has given Lawler and other local chefs an opportunity to show just how sophisticated they've become in using the stunning variety of cultivated "exotics" that are increasingly available year-round, from feathery clusters of maitakes to the tiny-cap beech mushrooms also known as honshimeji, and the giant king oyster mushrooms that are prized for the dense meatiness of their swollen stems.
Look around, and they can be found simply roasted (a.kitchen), steeped and stewed into pho soup (Vedge), baked onto pizzas (Nomad), griddled on the plancha (Jamonera), even turned into mushroom "jerky," as Jason Cichonski does with king oysters at Ela. Among the more distinctive preparations in Lawler's vast mushroom repertoire are the lightly pickled honshimejis in sherry vinegar and mushroom stock that are sauteed with asparagus or fiddlehead ferns as an elegant seasonal garnish for roasted chicken or fish.
"You go to any restaurant now, and there are wild mushrooms on the menu — even bars — because the level of cooking has become higher," says Lawler.
Indeed, wild mushrooms have long been the province of sophisticated French restaurants such as Bibou, where chanterelles and black trumpets often come bathed in cream, or stuffed with bread crumbs into the hollow of a marrow bone. But exotic non-button mushrooms (both wild and cultivated) have now clearly found their way into the mainstream.
They're being served as an open-faced "tartine" sandwich, topped with a blend of stewed mushrooms amped with porcini powder at Resurrection Ale House on Gray's Ferry Avenue, one gastropub that excels in mushroom cuisine. At Kraftwork in Fishtown, roasted hen of the woods (also called maitake) mushrooms tossed with truffled vinaigrette star in the beer bar's signature salad. At Ulivo, Joseph Scarpone's Queen Village Italian BYOB, the house-cut tonnarelli pasta has often been a showcase for the wild mushroom of the moment, as winter saw both hedgehogs and black trumpets, simply roasted, sing their earthy tune for no more than $16 a plate.
Many of these farm-grown varieties, whether sold at mushroom-centric retailers such as Whole Foods or Iovine's Produce or the region's many Asian and Russian supermarkets, are cultivated in Kennett Square, whose 75 farms produce 68 percent of the mushrooms in the United States, according to Jim Angelucci, general manager of Phillips Mushroom Farms.
Phillips, in particular, has been a leader in cultivating exotics, becoming the first American company to commercially grow shiitakes (1979), among several other varities. And a walk through the earthy and humid mist of the farm's low-slung grow rooms offers a surreal landscape of yellow oyster mushrooms exploding like popcorn from black totems of man-made "logs," wire shelves stacked with white plastic bags of maitakes blooming like odd floral arrangements unfurling into full flush, and thick-stemmed king oysters (which Phillips markets as "Royal Trumpets") poking up from their white base like a mushroom miniature diorama of the Badlands.
Those king oysters have made an especially big push onto restaurant menus in the last few years because, unlike most mushrooms, which are prized for the cap, they are virtually all stem, which means there is little if any waste. The density of the stems also means they soak up less oil, and are great for sautes (or sliced open and grilled cut-side down), while retaining their snappy texture.
Chefs complain, however, that they are bland, which led Jason Cichonski at Ela to experiment with marinades and dehydration, ultimately transforming those king oysters into a kind of jerky. The nearly translucent brown strips (served with rounds of beet jerky) have the texture of fruit leather, and explode on the tongue with a perfect balance of Asian spice and sweetness, from sriracha, soy, and powdered nori seaweed: "It's a super 'umami' thing," says Cichonski, "that makes you want to drink beer."
The scraps from those other mushrooms have also found their calling — in mushroom stock — which has become an important workhorse in local kitchens as the call for vegetarian cooking continues to rise. Rich Landau, at Vedge, puts the stock to one of its most distinctive uses in his mushroom pho, whose earthy broth steeps the exotic tones of ginger, star anise, and sesame oil before the addition of rice noodles, cilantro, more mushrooms, and baby greens.
A lighter, 20-minute version is at the heart of the sauce that Bryan Sikora uses at a.kitchen, with tart cubes of pickled squash, to put clusters of maitake mushrooms on a pedestal of creamy polenta. Seasoned and popped into a searingly hot oven for eight minutes ("just until they begin to perspire," he says), this dish is at once simple and deeply satisfying, a perfect example of where exotic mushrooms sit, even without the reclusive spring morels, on Philly's restaurant tables: in the spotlight.