When Chris Czarnecki took the reins as chef at The Joel Palmer House two years ago, he continued an established family tradition of fine dining centered around wild mushrooms. His father, Jack, first opened the Dayton-based restaurant in 1997 as a third-generation fungi-loving chef. But Czarnecki was also carrying on his father’s distinctly Oregonian contribution to the family legacy— the marriage of mushrooms and pinot noir. “Mushrooms and pinot are what we are all about here,” Czarnecki said.
With mushrooms in nearly every dish (and even the dessert menu), it is easy to see what he means. Reading the menu alone is enough to tempt anyone — from Joe’s Wild Mushroom Soup (a rich essence of pureed suillus mushrooms finished with crème fraiche) to Heidi’s Three Mushroom Tart to Beef Stroganoff with Painted Hills Oregon Beef and wild mushrooms over seasoned rice.
Then there is the wine list, which usually includes at least 500 (yes, 500!) different pinot noirs to choose from, many from small Oregon producers that you won’t easily find elsewhere. This list won “Wine Spectator’s” Best of Award of Excellence and “Oregon Wine Press” Superior Cellar Award in 2010. If you don’t like pinot, don’t worry. “There are other things to drink because sometimes you need a break from pinot,” Czarnecki said.
The family passion for wild mushrooms started with Czarnecki’s great-grandfather Joseph, who emigrated from Poland to Pennsylvania. As Czarnecki explains it, the culinary tradition was a matter of geography. “Mushrooms are central to Polish cuisine,” he said. “They had to rely on what they could forage.”
Joseph opened Joe’s Tavern in 1916 in a predominantly Polish neighborhood, and naturally included wild mushrooms in his cooking. His son, Joe Jr., wove a French inspiration into the menu and renamed the business Joe’s Restaurant. Jack kept up both traditions when he took over, and heightened the focus on fine wine when he and his wife Heidi opened The Joel Palmer House in the heart of Oregon wine country.
Czarnecki’s own training is deeply rooted in this family legacy. “I studied for several years at the Culinary Institute of Nana and Pop Pop,” he said, laughing. “I basically grew up in the kitchen.”
With Czarnecki in the kitchen, Jack hunts for mushrooms with a small army of friends and family in all corners of Oregon — Bend, Mt. Hood, the coast, and even the hills outside McMinnville. (Jack’s “A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms” won a 1996 James Beard Award.)
Of the more than a dozen wild mushrooms, Czarnecki said morels, matsutakes and porcinis are some of his favorites. But what really makes The Joel Palmer House menu special is the marriage of spicy Oregon pinots and pungent wild mushrooms, which create a distinct combination of flavors that you can’t comprehend until you’ve tried.
The atmosphere alone is well worth a visit to The Joel Palmer House. Named for the 19th-century pioneer and founder of the town of Dayton, the house is on the National Register of Historic Places and is an Oregon Historic Site. The house can accommodate 45 diners and twice as many in the summer when the patio is open.
And if you’re not into mushrooms, there are one or two dishes without, because, as the chef said, “There are some people who don’t like mushrooms as much as we do. It sounds crazy, I know!”