Magic with mushrooms at Napa’s Kitchen Door
It’s the start of mushroom season in Wine Country. Avid foragers are scouring damp forests, searching for everything from chanterelles to those delectable candy cap mushrooms that taste like maple syrup.
I’ve always adored mushrooms of all kinds, even canned white button mushrooms (the Val-de-Loire Bonduelle Button Organic Mushrooms, or Champignons de Paris émincés, as I snootily like to call them, are actually excellent).
This past December, the New York Times forecast mushrooms as the Ingredient of the Year for 2022.
“Mushrooms have landed on many prediction lists, in almost every form, from psilocybin mushrooms (part of the renewed interest in psychedelics) to thick coins of king oyster mushrooms as a stand-in for scallops,” the New York Times team wrote, noting that the number of small urban farms growing mushrooms is expected to boom.
I’ve foraged plenty, across Northern California, Oregon and France. It’s hard, messy work (not to mention potentially fatal if you mistake an aptly named death cap for an edible straw mushroom).
These days, I’m letting the professionals manage my mushroom cravings, experts like Todd Humphries, chef and co-founder of Kitchen Door in Napa.
Since he opened his original location in Oxbow Public Market in 2011, he has been a mushroom maestro. Now, at his newly debuted space at the First Street Napa retail center, he has kept mushrooms in the spotlight, presenting them as soup, on pizza, tossed with rice, atop carpaccio and as pasta sauce and aioli.
“Depending on what is season, we use morels, chanterelles, porcini, black trumpets, hedgehogs and yellow feet,” he said. He even uses humble button mushrooms for his signature creamy soup (more on that later).
First, some background. Humphries has worked with fine restaurants in New York and San Francisco for decades since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. He opened his enormously popular Michelin-starred Martini House Restaurant in St. Helena in 2001 and enjoyed a nine-year run.
There, he offered specials like an all-mushroom tasting menu. And he created dishes that still star at Kitchen Door, like that soul-stirring cream of mushroom soup ($11.50, bowl). It’s rich with butter, cream and milk and simmered with porcinis and button mushrooms, shallots, white wine and Marsala wine, then pureed until silky. And then it’s finished Banyuls vinegar, a dollop of sour cream and butter-toasted brioche croutons.
Much of the culinary credit goes to Executive Chef Conor Esser these days. He started at Martini House in 2008 as a pastry cook, moving up through the ranks of line cooks and eventually working every station. He helped Humphries open Oxbow Kitchen Door as sous chef, then took over as chef de cuisine.
He has put his own twists on classics, like the stunning carpaccio that’s so silky it’s almost oily (in the most delicious way). The secret, he said, is to razor-slice eye of round beef so thin it’s almost transparent, roll it in plastic wrap, freeze it, then prepare it to order. The delicate rounds are laced on a plate, drizzled with truffle aioli, dotted with crispy potato, scattered with pungent Himalayan truffle and capped in lightly dressed arugula ($18). It’s exquisite.
More mushrooms sneak into the global menu, such as with the Vietnamese Bun Chay lettuce cups ($18). In a surprisingly effective twist, the recipe is vegan: The fish sauce is converted to a spicy-sour vegan dashi made with dried shiitakes, kombu, arbol chile, tamari and garlic instead of katsuobushi (dried skipjack tuna flakes). The tender butter lettuce becomes a finger-friendly wrap stuffed with bean thread noodles, julienne pickled carrot, cucumber, bean sprouts, herbs and wands of crispy-creamy tofu, for dipping in chile dipping sauce. You can substitute grilled chicken breast ($5), seared shrimp ($7) or Korean ribs ($10).
Kitchen Door has an array of flatbread-style pizzas crisped up in the Mugnaini wood-burning oven — Margherita ($19), pepperoni with mozzarella and provolone ($20.95) and an herb-crust model dressed in EVOO, rosemary, thyme and oregano ($9) with must-add indulgences of burrata ($9) and/or duck-liver mousse ($7.95).
But I got the mushroom pie, a fetching vegetarian creation of Parmesan cream, oyster and maitake mushrooms, mozzarella, provolone, rosemary and arugula ($20.95). I really wish I had a whole ’nother pie to devour as I’m writing this.
The new Kitchen Door is a more elegant affair than the original. The Oxbow spot began as a fast-food style operation, where diners ordered at the counter. Here, the snazzy contemporary space operates around an open kitchen. There’s a full bar sending out craft cocktails and an indoor-outdoor dining area. Table service is smooth, and the menu trends more upscale.