Long before the matsutake mushroom, madrona-bark cream, and nettle-seed dish made it onto Cafe Barjot's menu in early September, it had been taking shape within chef Nick Coffey's mind for weeks. Coffey had just gotten the first harvests of wild matsutakes when he took a trip to Orcas Island.
"I'd gone to Orcas to get away, but the matsutakes had just come in, so I was thinking about them. All the madrona trees were dropping their bark, so I foraged. There were nettles as well, but the nettles were really tall, and I thought of the nettle seeds my girlfriend had picked up for a condiment she was making."
Back in Seattle, Coffey put together a dish that was captivating for both its simplicity and its creativity: a single matsutake mushroom—the cap lightly grilled and served gills up—next to a dollop of savory madrona-bark cream. Underneath were shaved raw stalks of the mushroom's stem, and on top was a scattering of nettle seeds. The dish requires you to take your time, assembling balanced bites from all the ingredients, whose subtle, shared notes of cinnamon, smoke, and earth echo each other and amplify into a flavorful punch.
Relying on seasonal, foraged ingredients means being adaptable, especially when the weather changes suddenly. When I caught up with Coffey to photograph the making of the dish, he was in the midst of reimagining it, as the large matsutakes with open caps were no longer available. "It all changes so fast," he said.
The latest batch of matsutakes Coffey had received from Jeremy Faber of Foraged & Found Edibles, who foraged them in British Columbia, were small and unopened.
"These mushrooms haven't even broken through yet, so foragers are just looking for humps in the ground," said Coffey. "Matsutakes are graded in terms of size and openness. Number threes are usually big, but these guys are just lil' peanuts and, as you can see, pretty dirty."
1. Prepare the Mushrooms
Coffey painstakingly cleans the mushrooms with a wet paper towel, a dry paper towel, and then shaves off the harder, earth-covered layer at the base of the stem. Using a mandoline, he shaves them into thin sheets. He takes another matsutake and simply slices it in half to grill.
2. Make the Madrona-Bark Cream
Coffey fills a small saucepan to its brim with madrona bark, and then adds cream, some shallot, and a few cloves of garlic. "The madrona is really subtle, so you really gotta jam it in there," he says. "And I want to get the savoriness of the alliums."
Since there are not many elements to the dish, Coffey spends most of his time on the cream. He heats the cream until it's frothy and begins to change color and then pulls it off the heat to steep. After it has cooled in the refrigerator, Coffey strains the cream and whips it by hand until it thickens.
3. Grill the Matsutake
Barjot has a tiny kitchen—just one oven and two induction burners. "Our grill system is very unique," Coffey says, laughing as he places a cast-iron grill pan on top of an induction burner, which uses magnetism to generate electricity. It takes several attempts to get the pan in just the right spot so that it begins to conduct heat.
Once the pan is hot, Coffey places the mushroom halves onto the grill, which soon begins to smoke and give off an aroma of earth and spice. After a few minutes, he turns the pieces once to get perfectly crisscrossed grill marks on each one.
4. Plate the Dish
"Whatever we do today is what will go on the menu this week," says Coffey, as he arranges and rearranges the slices of raw matsutake on the plate multiple times, as though he's letting the mushrooms figure out where they want to be. "Because the mushrooms changed, the dish needs to change as well."
He eventually settles on layering the pieces on one side of the plate like shingles, so they resemble a pinecone or feathers on a bird's wing.
On the other side of the plate, he places a dollop of the cocoa-colored madrona cream and then gently sets the grilled matsutake halves down next to it. He picks up some of the nettle seeds he foraged that morning in Discovery Park and sprinkles them on top. "These seeds are so much more flavorful than the ones I bought and have been using," he says, pleased.
Coffey toys with the idea of using a few more herbs he picked up on his walk in the woods—yarrow, sheep sorrel, wild chamomile—but quickly decides against it, opting for simplicity. Using a tiny plastic dropper, he christens the mushroom slices with a few drops of a potent, house-made honey vinegar. "The dish has so few elements, it really needs some acid. And to finish, some nice crunchy salt," he says.
He turns the plate around, studies it for a moment, and then nods and smiles approvingly. "That should be it."