By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s nearing midnight on a Saturday at The Joel Palmer House, where the earlier bustle in the dining room has slowed to the lull of a closing time routine. But Chef Christopher Czarnecki’s night is still only about halfway complete.
That’s because his dad Jack Czarnecki has just shown up to the Dayton restaurant with several hundred pounds of mushrooms.
And the valuable haul won’t wait.
Chef Czarnecki must get to work and clean the fungi, a signature ingredient in what’s become a fourth-generation family business. While this image isn’t as romanticized as the rustic mushroom hunt itself or revered like the moment you bite into a dish made with an elusive type of mushroom, the less-glamorous side of the culinary process is just as important as the rest of it.
The Joel Palmer House is nestled in the eastern edge of Yamhill County — a place where wine has gotten all of the glory. Six of the state’s American Viticultural Areas are located there and it’s the county with the largest amount of land planted with vineyards, according to Travel Yamhill Valley. While it may seem second nature, then, to pair Czarnecki’s cuisine with the ever-popular pinot noir, more breweries are beginning to sprout in the towns around his restaurant, including Wolves & People, which recently made a brew with the assistance of the fungi family. Therefore, it’s time to give beer a chance to partner with these fascinating, wild organisms that thrive in Oregon’s environment.
Opening a mushroom- and truffle-themed restaurant in a state teeming with colorful caps poking out of the ground as well as buried bulbs just makes sense. But the Czarnecki’s passion for mushrooms goes deeper than that — the hyphae have become intertwined with their DNA. The business actually began across the country in Reading, Penn., with the heritage of Czarnecki’s great-grandfather shaping the food that was not yet fine dining.
“It was a Polish tavern, Polish part of town — and that’s what they cooked was Polish food,” Czarnecki described.
He also pointed out that the process of gathering mushrooms is a longstanding tradition for the Poles. “What most people don’t realize is they were surrounded by enemies for thousands of years and so they got really good at living off the land, and mushrooms are a big part of that.”
Czarnecki’s grandfather elevated the fare when he took over the tavern and transformed it into a restaurant. Not only was he an amateur mycologist; he and his wife were both Francophiles “who combined their knowledge of Polish cooking and mushrooms” and infused that with French flavors — a style that was unique for its time in the U.S.
The restaurant moved to Oregon in 1996 after the next generation, Czarnecki’s father, became head of the kitchen. He maintained the mushroom emphasis, but started exploring other styles of cuisine. “A big part of the reason we came to Oregon is because we’re surrounded by vineyards who produce world-class wine, and all of this rain we get we call ‘mushroom sunshine,’” said Czarnecki.
And these days it isn’t just the wine that’s at the top of its game. Beer may not be emphasized on the menu at The Joel Palmer House, but it’s been given more prominence at The Barlow Room — a sister restaurant that has also been the site of a beer-pairing dinner since opening in 2014. In addition to launching the second eatery, Czarnecki has approached The Joel Palmer House like a theater director who wants to successfully execute a classic play while keeping both performers and the audience on their toes through the use of contemporary adaptations. He’s been fine tuning that balance since assuming the role of head chef nearly 10 years ago upon returning from the Army.
“I’ll be honest with you, when I first came home I looked at the menu and was like, half of these dishes have either copious amounts of butter or heavy cream in them,” Czarnecki explained. “And don’t get me wrong — I’m all about rich and satisfying dishes. But I was like, ‘OK, well that’s the first thing I’ve got to change. I’ve got to lighten things up a little bit.”
Czarnecki’s first few years were spent trying to define his vision of the entire production, but he eventually grew more confident in his ability to experiment.
“When I started having the most fun was when I started getting on the internet and reading some books about discovering molecular gastronomy,” Czarnecki said.
Those science skills were on display in a pre-meal bite in the form of carrot tartare. When placed in a sous vide before being shocked with liquid nitrogen, Czarnecki avoids the danger of cooking carrots: turning them into bland baby food. But that method retained the freshness and slight crunch, along with a hint of sweetness. It takes restraint, but he primarily uses those lab-like tools as a way accentuate food, not reshape it.
“Because your foodies like me — it can get overboard pretty quick,” he admitted as a broad grin flashed across his face. “And just because you can do something to a food, doesn’t mean you should. There were a lot of experiments that never made it to a customer’s plate, but it was educational.”
A more traditional dish from the appetizer menu, Escargot baked with parsley and garlic butter with a truffle oil finish, led the way into the rest of dinner. An appropriate Yamhill County pairing was Heater Allen’s Pils, its bready characteristics bonding well with the earthy, somewhat mushroom-like, qualities of the snails. When plunged into and generously coated in a creamy lemon-lime emulsion, the Escargot allowed the vibrant citrus to pop — nearly sending shivers down the tongue when followed with the bright pilsner.
Picture one your favorite meals as a kid at a summer barbecue. For many, that would look like a big burger washed down with an A&W Cream Soda. The second appetizer pairing recreated that experience while giving it a sophisticated twist. A truffle-infused Beef Tartare served with house-baked brioche was the deconstructed sandwich while Portland Brewing Company’s BlackWatch Cream Porter stood in for the soft drink. The buttery meat had an addictive tang provided by a dusting of truffle snow and chopped onion. Brioche that’s not quite as sweet as shortbread found complementary flavors in the Cream Porter. However, the wood smoke notes in BlackWatch do build, leaving the sensation of a comforting leaf burn in fall.
A big, proud meat made its debut during the main course: pan-seared and sous-vide duck breast with Chinese five spice, green beans and local chanterelles. The mushrooms arrived thanks to the hard work of Czarnecki’s dad and his “army of retired school teachers,” as Czarnecki describes the group who lives for the experience of loading up in Subarus on a chilly morning to commence the hunt through Oregon’s soil.
The bitterness of 10 Barrel’s Apocalypse IPA helped cut the rich duck. A beautifully simple polonaise sauce made up of bread crumbs toasted in clarified butter with parmesan and poppy seeds was drizzled atop the mushrooms and green beans (a method Czarnecki’s grandmother employed to get him to eat his veggies as a kid). A backdrop of Marionberry and foie gras puree added contrast to the savory plate, which was so dense it could have been a holiday meal all on its own. You can almost imagine old Ebenezer digging into an indulgent duck like Czarnecki’s on Christmas Eve with the same zest he carves into his abused clerk Bob Cratchit.
After four generations of a family business devoted to mushrooms and truffles, there might be pressure or temptation to abandon the old. But Czarnecki knows he was born into something special that other chefs aren’t. The knowledge is passed along, father to son. And the passion can’t be taught.
“We were doing seasonal and local decades before it ever became the popular and hip thing to do. There’s a big difference between wild mushrooms and the mushrooms you find at the salad bar and on your pizzas. Wild mushrooms have way more character,” Czarnecki explained. “Hell yeah, I’m going to make this the core of what we’ll do. Not just for tradition’s sake, but because now I can apply these other tools and have a lot of fun with it.”
Wild Mushroom Risotto with Oregon White Truffle Oil
Paired with Long Brewing Kolsch
By Chef Christopher Czarnecki, The Joel Palmer House
1/2 ounce dried porcini
1 quart water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 pound unsalted butter
1 cup long grain rice
1/2 ounce dried onion
Grated parmesan cheese
2 ounces Joel Palmer House Oregon White Truffle Oil
—In uncovered saucepan, bring water, dried mushrooms, sugar, salt and soy sauce to boil.
—Add rice and reduce heat to simmer.
—Strain out liquid and reserve.
—Chop mushrooms finely.
—In medium saute pan, melt butter and add dried onion and rice. Stir for 1 minute, then add the reserved mushroom liquid.
—Cook uncovered and stir gently until water is absorbed and evaporated, about 15-20 minutes.
—Portion rice, drizzle lightly with parmesan cheese and truffle oil and serve.
The Joel Palmer House
600 Ferry St., Dayton
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