Sautéed halibut fillets are served on a bed of lobster mushrooms, corn, shallots and cherry tomatoes—and topped with whole coriander seeds. Recipe below.
As I said on Facebook the other day, if we lived in Seattle, I would be eating all the time. I mean it—all the time. And I would be fine with that. Super-fresh, super-local, super-delicious food is so readily accessible that I would not give one good god damn about my arteries or my cholesterol or my waddling or any of that.
For the last couple of weeks, Terry has been talking about the vast amount of amazing food we had on our recent trip to Seattle. I don’t think we had anything less than amazing. And the most special evening was the one we spent at Sitka & Spruce, which was a surprise to us in many ways.
Sitka & Spruce is inside the Melrose Market, cobbled together out of two big, one-story adjacent buildings to become home to a bunch of independent purveyors—among them Rain Shadow Meats, a butchery out of a Dutch still life; the wine bar Bar Ferd’nand; the cheese shop Calf & Kid; a flower shop; a vinyl store; and a seafood shop. There’s also an event space and, in the basement, a cocktail lounge.
Each of these is among the best examples of its kind in the country, and Chef Matt Dillon’s Sitka & Spruce fits among them perfectly.
The restaurant itself is a modest L-shaped room—a space that is at once industrial and comfortable, with a well-worn-looking wood floor and one wall of factory-style windows. One part of the room, the short part of the L, has several small tables; the other, the long part of the L, is dominated by a long communal table—at one end of the table, casually dressed diners, at the other, cooks, dressed not that differently from the customers, doing prep work, and at the far end of the room, the stoves. Wonderful.
Even more wonderful is the food, which seems to fit perfectly into this relaxing, attentive ambiance: the freshest, most local of everything, honored with direct, inspired cooking.
We were mad for Pacific Northwest mushrooms on this trip, and one of the starters we shared included roasted chanterelles. Another was little chunks of salmon, lightly cured, with tiny chunks of roasted potatoes, huckleberries and fresh horseradish.
My favorite of the many things we tried that night was a sea bass cooked with fresh corn, lobster mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and a scattering at the finish of toasted coriander seeds. Somehow, despite our visits to Seattle and our “sure, I’ll try that” approach to food, we had never before had a lobster mushroom.
I ordered this because it seems like it would be something simple, pure and direct—like the restaurant itself, and like the things we love most about Seattle food. The ingredients for this are simple and few. It was all those things but it was more: intoxicating, surprising. Whatever is going on in the world of American food right now, this is it. You are feeling it.
This dish was so wonderful that I had to try to repeat it. Here is my humble take on a great moment.
Halibut with Lobster Mushrooms
1 tablespoon coriander seeds, toasted (see Kitchen Notes)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 halibut fillets with skin on, about 4 ounces each (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 cup shallots, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup of corn kernels, cut from 2 ears of corn (see Kitchen Notes)
6 to 8 ounces of grape tomatoes, whole
4 ounces lobster mushroom, in 1/3 inch dice (see Kitchen Notes)
1/3 cup white wine (see Kitchen Notes)
Toast the coriander seeds. Heat a dry nonstick skillet to medium and toast the coriander seeds for six or seven minutes, stirring with a wooden or nylon spatula, until they start to darken. Pour into a little dish and set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and butter, swirling them together, at medium-high. (Use high-quality olive oil and very good butter for this recipe. We used Plugra, the European-style butter from Wisconsin.) Salt and pepper the fish fillets. Place them in the skillet skin side down and sear for 4 minutes. Turn them over with a wide spatula and cook for only 1 minute. Transfer fillets to a plate, tent with foil and hold them.
Lower the heat under the pan slightly and add shallots. Cook for two or three minutes, until they are clear. Transfer to a small bowl and save.
Add the lobster mushrooms to the pan (add a little more oil and butter if necessary), tossing to coat, and sauté until golden brown on at least a couple of sides—5 or 6 minutes. The oil will turn a lovely scarlet-orange color. Return shallots to the pan, stir, and add in the corn and the garlic and stir again. Cook for 45 seconds, then add the white wine. There should not be much liquid. Scatter the tomatoes all around. Gently nestle the fish on the vegetables, lower the heat and cover the pan. Cook until the fish is just cooked through and the tomatoes have just burst, about 3 minutes. The cooking liquid should be reduced to nearly nothing.
Plate by arranging the vegetables in the center of a plate, then set a fish fillet on top. Scatter coriander seeds on each serving and bring it immediately to table. Beautiful, fresh—the pure bountiful Northwest.
First, the so-called lobster mushrooms. They’re rather difficult to obtain outside the Pacific Northwest, unless you special order them, for instance from Sosio’s Fruit and Produce, our personal favorite. Lobster mushrooms—Hypomyces lactifluorum—are not a species of mushroom. They are a parasitic fungus that colonizes lactarius and russula mushrooms, turning them the color of cooked lobster in its shell, and, eventually, contorting them into weird twisted shapes. You’ll find a more precise and less appealing description of the process here.
The process is very rapid—a mushroom can come up one afternoon and be completely colonized, and far more delicious, by the next morning. Interestingly, good lobster mushrooms evoke the experience of eating lobster—the same fleshy density and even the same sweet flavor. However, as one mycologist puts it, “caution is advised since the identity of the host mushroom is not always apparent.” We urge you to buy yours from reputable sellers—people who know their home ground and know what they are doing.
Call in the substitutes? Sure! For this dish, you may replace the lobster mushroom with any meaty, dense mushroom, such as portobello, or, indeed, any mushrooms that you favor. In a dish with as few ingredients as this one, each choice you make radically affects the outcome. As we like to say, it won’t be the same, but it will be different.
The fish. When you are assembling the working parts, aim for the freshest white-fleshed fish fillet you can find. But, honestly, this would still work with basic frozen tilapia from Costco—just thaw, and reduce the cooking time in keeping with the size of the fillet (I would go with two-and-a-half to three minutes on one side, 30 seconds on the other). Using a frozen fillet will not be in the spirit of the original, but it is in the spirit of Blue Kitchen—cooking at home using ingredients you can obtain easily.
The coriander seeds. Don’t, don’t omit these. This little step is the thing that elevates a simple dish into something eye-opening, creating occasional crunches and bursts of flavor.
The corn. Yes, you can use frozen corn kernels. But remember, quality counts in this dish. Don’t go for the bargain brand or, worse, the half bag lurking in the back of your freezer since the last time you moved.
The wine. For this dish, don’t cook with anything you wouldn’t want to drink. Three-buck Chuck is okay for some everyday sauces, but for this, it might not even be wrong to use a bit of whatever wine you plan to serve with the fish. Just please make sure you use white—red wine would affect the appearance.