LONG BEACH, Wash. - On a perfectly clear, crisp fall day, I drive north past cranberry bogs and trees hung with dry, crackling leaves to sample the wild mushroom dishes of some of the Long Beach Peninsula's best chefs.
My first stop is The Ark Restaurant, perched on the edge of windswept Willapa Bay in Nahcotta.
In the kitchen, Chef Jimella Lucas brandishes a brown paper bag full of first quality king boletus - or porcini - mushrooms. They had been delivered early that morning along with a load of rich chanterelles the color of soft leather. Lucas, like many chefs, is reluctant to divulge the name of her mushroom supplier.
The chef peers through her stylish frames into the bounty of the bag and inhales. The aroma is deep, earthy.
"I live in a world of indigenous produce and I can't get better quality than this," she says.
She slices a big, white boletus into 1 1/2 inch thick pieces, exposing its dense flesh and the delicate mustard-colored gills underneath the cap.
"They are so dense that I can do almost anything with them," Lucas says. "When you eat them they almost taste like a steak."
My mouth waters as Lucas soaks the slabs of mushroom in a buttermilk, egg and sherry wash and coats them in house-made bread crumbs.
I follow her to the stove where extra virgin olive oil and clarified butter are heating.
The breaded mushrooms go into the hot oil flat side down. Mushrooms are 90 percent water, I am told, so they require a lot of cooking time to turn brown.
Chopped garlic, shallots, parsley and a generous squeeze of lemon follow the mushrooms into the pan.
"Those are beautiful," Lucas says.
Now come the fireworks. Lucas grabs a bottle of sherry and makes a few laps around the pan.
A fountain of soft orange and blue flames leaps head high. When the fire goes out, Lucas slips the pan into a 425-degree Fahrenheit oven.
While the king boletus finishes, Lucas prepares an equally tantalizing appetizer of chanterelles with hazelnuts and Madeira. See recipe page 19.
A short while later the mushrooms meuniere emerge, golden brown now. Lucas places them on a white plate then condenses the sauce remaining in the pan with soft butter. The sauce tops the mushrooms and we repair to the elegant dining room.
"From the earth to the table," Lucas says. This theme threads through everything she does at The Ark, and is perhaps most evident in the two wild mushroom dishes just prepared.
A short drive down Sandridge Road brings me to The Moby Dick Hotel and Oyster Farm, where chef Jeff McMahon swiftly moves around the small kitchen, preparing the week's menu. The Moby Dick changes its fare every Thursday.
McMahon roasts most of the wild mushrooms he uses. See roasting tips page 19.
"I like what it does to the flavor," he says. "It concentrates it and it takes away some of the rawness."
Inspired by Mediterranean culinary traditions, McMahon finds many opportunities to incorporate wild mushrooms into his menus year round.
"All the cultures of the Mediterranean use mushrooms," he says, serving up Pollo al Ajillo, a national dish of Spain.
Roasted chanterelles add another dimension to this dish of braised chicken, spinach, chickpeas and garlic.
In vegetarian dishes, such as butternut squash ravioli with robiola cheese, caramelized onions and sage, porcini mushrooms add a heartiness, McMahon says.
"It doesn't taste like beef, it doesn't taste like pork, but it has that rich, full-bodied flavor that you would associate with meat."
I snack on the chicken and ravioli while McMahon continues cooking. The textures and flavors of wild mushrooms compliment and enhance the other ingredients. Looking out the kitchen window onto a shaded garden, it's not hard to imagine Tuscany or Andalusia.
In the back pantry of Seaview's The Shoalwater Restaurant, chef Lynne "Red" Pelletier cuts lobster mushrooms and white mountain chanterelles to be paired with pesto and stuffed in halibut. Bob Dylan plays on the radio.
She is preparing a seven-course meal for the Shoalwater's Wild Mushrooms and Earthy Wines dinner, which kicked off the restaurant's Winemakers Dinner series last week.
Every dish has mushrooms, including a palate-cleansing sorbet and a mock cherry pie with morels macerated in orange juice and Grand Marnier for dessert.
"We use them in such a myriad of ways," Pelletier says. Wild mushroom dishes appear on the regular menu too.
She shows off flowery matsutakes, pungent, green and yellow deliciosus lactarius and a small box of truffles, which she got ahead of gourmet grocer Dean & Deluca for nearly $100 a pound, she says boastfully.
This spirited chef recalls mushrooms as an ingredient in the first "truly gourmet" dish she can remember eating. She was 17, visiting a recently married cousin in Kittery, Maine. The mushrooms were served with game hens, Pelletier says.
I ask her how she would describe wild mushrooms to someone who has never tasted them before.
"It is a taste sensation not unlike the experience of sex," she says with a frank smile. "It's not just a mental eye thing, it's a physical thing as well. This is an all encompassing experience. It heightens. It is definitely a sensual thing."