The Wild Mushroom, 641 S. Montford Ave., (410) 675-4225. Open Mondays to Saturdays for dinner only. Major credit cards. No smoking area: yes. Prices: under $15. ***
The Wild Mushroom -- it sounds like a '60s psychedelic kind of place, doesn't it?
Not to '90s foodies.
Nowadays any restaurant worth its salt has a portobello mushroom or two on its menu, if not a shiitake, an enoki and a morel. Not sure exactly which is which? All you have to do is look in the produce section of your local supermarket. Not gourmet food store. Supermarket.
So it's no surprise that a new restaurant has decided to specialize in fungi. The only surprise is that it's a bar in Canton, not some trendy little place in Mount Washington.
The Wild Mushroom's dining room opened in early February, the creation of Jennifer Price, who owns the restaurant with her husband and parents and does the cooking herself. Ms. Price, only in her 20s, had been a sous-chef at M. Gettier and had worked at Piccolo's in Columbia before striking out on her own.
My first piece of advice about her new restaurant is to make reservations. You can eat at the elaborate oak bar in front or at one of the few bar tables, but the dining room proper has only two tables for four and three tables for two.
In the center of the small room is a grouping of a leather sofa and two armchairs, for reasons that escape me. They do look nice and homey; it's as if you were eating in someone's living room. But you'd think the Prices would want the room for more tables.
It's a pleasant little dining room, with white tablecloths on the tables, fetchingly mismatched chairs and pretty print wallpaper and deep green trim. A window opens onto the kitchen, and around it the whole wall is a blackboard announcing the weekly menu.
I took three guests with me to the Wild Mushroom. We had one fungi lover, two who can take or leave them, and one who had to be told we were going to a place called the Wild Asparagus or she wouldn't have gone. Would she starve to death, or would there be something on the menu without a mushroom in it?
Not to worry, mushrooms were a surprisingly discreet presence on the menu -- that week at least. Of course, one of the soups had to be cream of mushroom. But people who object to mushrooms because of their texture would like this. It was a puree of mushroom, made silky with cream, with an essence of earthy mushroom flavor rather than slices.
You could get the crab dip and simply ignore the fact that it was on a large portobello mushroom. It was a hot, seductively smooth mixture of cream cheese, melted mozzarella and sour cream with flakes of crab for flavor and crisp toasts to spread it on.
Our non-mushroom eater was happy with her fried smoked mozzarella -- hot, gooey and crisp at the same time -- with a fine chunky tomato sauce to complement it.
Best of all our starters, though, were the steamed mussels. How simple can you get? But how difficult it is to get these right: perfectly fresh and perfectly rinsed so that each plump mollusk was completely free of sand. They were so good they almost didn't need the garlic, butter and wine sauce; but I was glad it was there.
The house specialty is a grilled portobello mushroom sandwich. I've always avoided hamburger substitutes -- the so-called veggie burgers -- because I just don't think they taste good enough. But here's a gourmet alternative. The mushroom had great texture and plenty of woodsy, charcoal-grilled flavor. It came on a fresh, chewy baguette with sauteed greens and slices of tomato. On the side were crisp rounds of fried sweet potato.
If you want meat, though, the Wild Mushroom has it. A large,
flavorful piece of tenderloin was cooked pink, exactly as ordered, with a bit of winy glaze. With it came boiled new potatoes (the waiter would probably let you substitute those sweet potato fries), two baby carrots and a simple French salad of mixed greens dressed with vinaigrette.
If you love seafood, those mussels were a meal in themselves, even though they were billed as a first course. But if you want more, six fat shrimp on rice in a barbecue sauce spiked with Wild Turkey made a worthy successor.
The third, and strangest, entree offered that day was a ham and mushroom meatloaf. I'd give the concoction another name. It came in the shape of a crab cake and actually bore no resemblance to meatloaf. It was light as a feather, with the ham and mushrooms pureed together so you couldn't guess what it was made of if you didn't know. It appealed to us all, though, and was made even better with a rich brandy cream sauce.
This is a kitchen that's starting off small so it won't be overwhelmed -- that's clear enough. There is, for instance, only one dessert. This night it was a creamy homemade cheesecake with a strawberry puree. Another night it might be strawberry shortcake or a chocolate confection, but only one.
This is such a small operation that you shouldn't be surprised if there's a wait for the food when every table is taken and people are eating at the bar. As far as I could tell, it's only Ms. Price and her mom, Jane Moeller, back there in the kitchen.