Chef Yuji Urawa completes a matsutake salad.

Chef devotes a dinner
to a rare ’shroom

Yuji Urawa remembers going on early morning matsutake hunts, searching for this most fragrant, most elusive of fungi. He remembers combing the base of pine trees, where the mushrooms could be found buried in leaves.

Basically, Urawa says, you sniff them out.

"Find by smell," he says. "Hard to find."

This was in Kyoto, where Urawa worked as chef at Tanshin Restaurant. Now that he's departed Japan to serve as chef at Kacho in the Waikiki Parc Hotel, Urawa must depend on imported matsutake. But this hasn't stopped him from planning a complete dinner around the rare 'shroom, with seven of nine courses showcasing the matsutake.

"For Japanese, matsutake means the beginning of the fall, a taste of the fall," Urawa says.

The matsutake, or pine mushroom, is a fist-sized mushroom that is prized on the level of chantarelles and morels, in some cases even truffles. Prices can run up to $70 per pound.

Three dishes that will be part of a matsutake kaiseki dinner at Kacho: a broth with ginkgo nuts in the teapot, steamed matsutake with sea urchin and scallops molded into a tower, left, and a salad.

The mushroom is the fruit of the matsutake mycelium fungus, which coats the roots of pine trees, delivering water and nutrients. Matsutakes grow in Japan, Korea and China, as well as in Mexico, British Columbia and the United States Pacific Northwest.

Wild matsutakes have a very short season and, as Urawa says, are hard to find. It is said they never grow in the same spot twice, so hunters must really be able to read the signs.

All of this makes an all-matsutake menu a dicey proposition, but one Urawa and Yoshiharu Suzuki, Kacho manager, were willing to undertake, for the challenge, the uniqueness and because the mushroom is one of those great indulgences.

The special dinner is presented as in kaiseki-style, the Japanese tradition of a meal comprising several small dishes presented with great artistry. Kaiseki dinners are usually built around seasonal ingredients and follow a pattern. There is normally a clear broth, for example, as well as steamed, fried, grilled, raw and rice dishes. Beyond that, a chef is free to vamp a bit.

Kacho's standard menu features a sushi kaiseki and a "Chef's Special Kaiseki"; the matsutake menu is an autumn special to be offered through September.

Urawa says he scoured books for traditional recipes to find eight different approaches. His menu includes matsutake in broth, grilled with potatoes, steamed and fried as tempura.

Urawa says a light approach is best with matsutake. Overcooking can turn it tough. The mushrooms are usually served in thin slices, as the scent and flavor are strong. "Sometimes, aroma is enough."

Cost of the meal is $70. For reservations call 924-3535.

Urawa offered this recipe for one of the simpler dishes on the menu, a salad. The basic procedure is simple, but there are a lot of steps, as each vegetable is prepared differently. A trip to a Japanese market will be necessary to collect all the ingredients, from the mountain yam to the canned ginkgo nuts. Fresh matsutakes are available at Marukai markets, but only for a limited time.

Urawa says no other mushroom will do. "Cannot," he says. "That's why matsutake so expensive -- is king."

Matsutake Salad

2 ounces matsutake mushrooms, thinly sliced
12 slices lotus root
8 snow peas
12 gingko nuts
Vegetable oil for frying
12 1/4-inch slices yamaimo (mountain yam)
12 1/4-inch slices Okinawan sweet potato (boil before slicing)

>> Dressing:
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon sesame oil
4 tablespoons vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons tamari soy sauce
2 tablespoons orange juice
3 tablespoons sesame seeds

Broil mushroom slices until soft. Blanch lotus root and snow peas in boiling water. Fry gingko nuts 1 minute in hot oil.

To make dressing, whisk ingredients together.

Toss all vegetables together with dressing. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional analysis, per serving: 320 calories, 27 g total fat, 2.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 330 mg sodium, 20 g carbohydrate, 5 g protein.

Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.

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