A favorite question interviewers like to ask is, "What is your restaurant's signature dish?" Although a few would say it's the grits, and a lot of people would say it's the hush puppies, there's no argument in my mind as to what dish best represents Dirt Candy: the portobello mushroom mousse. I made a version of this dish when I was at Heirloom but I always felt like it was hitting near the target but not dead in the center. The portobello mousse we're serving here absolutely hits the bull's eye in terms of what I want it to be. Three people I know who hate mushrooms have ordered it and raved about how good it is, including one nine-year-old girl who claimed to despise even the sight of mushrooms and then ate almost all of her mother's mousse. It's the dish we make that always surprises people, and the one that lots of committed carnivores love because it delivers a rich taste that they don't normally associate with vegetarian food.
Mushrooms can be silky little creatures when they're prepared the right way. Earthy, rich, dense and smooth they have a meatiness to them, a heft and a nice chew that's hard to find in other vegetables. Potatoes can have that same smooth, dense feel but they come with a starchiness, whereas mushrooms land on your tongue as graceful as butterflies, rich and chewy but without any hangover.
Portobello mushrooms are one of those vegetables that got too much exposure, too fast, the star of numerous soggy sandwiches and lifeless grilled vegetable plates in the 90's. They're the Mickey Rourke of the mushroom world: a truly fantastic vegetable that got too much attention, too soon, so that their wonderfulness was buried beneath a mountain of bad career choices and burdened with lots of baggage after decades of misuse. But if you leave behind the woeful associations, the humble portobello still packs a smooth, rich mouth feel unlike any other fungus out there and so it's front and center in the portobello mousse.
"I am a portobello mushroom."
The dish itself consists of a cube of the mousse, some thinly sliced grilled portobellos, a scoop of pear and fennel compote and little bits of truffle toast. After watching some folks struggle with their knives and forks (heartbreaking) we now recommend that people spread the mousse on the toast, top it with the grilled portobellos, add a bit of the compote for some sweetness, then stuff the whole thing in their mouth. Lots of people have asked how we make the mousse and I'll tell you the ugly secret: in the basement of Dirt Candy we have mushrooms penned up and every day we force feed them until they're swollen and dripping with deliciousness. Some people say this is mushroom cruelty, but to be honest I think the mushrooms like it.
PETA is running a competition this year for a foie gras substitute, and the Village Voice spontaneously nominated our portobello mousse for consideration, writing that it is "...rich, earthy and intense, with a silky texture reminiscent of foie gras." I've never had foie gras but my husband has and to him the texture was compelling: cool, smooth and luxurious, like having the inside of your mouth carpeted with cashmere. The taste? According to him, it's kind of like a greasier version of portobello mushrooms. So while the portobello mousse isn't some kind of "faux gras" it's a dish that was created to deliver that same smooth, dense texture along with the rich earthy taste of mushrooms. Eating it should make you feel like a truffle pig, snout-deep in mushroom nirvana. And, yes, there is a vegan version and, yes, I have twice run out of the dairy portobello mousse and served the vegan version to unsuspecting diners (including one who'd had it before) and they never noticed the difference.