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The Restaurant With No Name
by Barry Lazar
The restaurant at the end of the universe has no name and no menu. It only serves lunch. It was a gift from the king of the mushrooms to his son.

The son of the king of the mushrooms was mystified. We had brought him mushrooms from the lawn of a friend. They were edible but no one remembered what they were called. We brought ours, with their large white caps and thick stems still attached to clumps of grass, here, to the restaurant with no name on boulevard St-Michel, at the edge of Montreal.

The mushroom king, Antonio Totarella, is retired. He came here from Italy in 1963 and started working at a bottling factory. He made $45 a week. "I looked around and said, you can make a job in Canada for yourself." He worked at the Marché Central. He put some money together, found a truck, and started bringing in common table mushrooms from Hamilton. "The first three months I lost $8000. There were too many on the market. Then the market changed and I made money." A few years ago Totarella sold his company and bought his son, Louis, a small restaurant.

The king of the mushrooms had hoped that his son might take over the business but Louis had more exotic ideas. He showed me a commercial, glass-door refrigerator at one end of the restaurant. I could see a few dozen bottles of beer, a plate of grilled and marinated red peppers, some cantaloups, a box of figs, and a jar filled with rice. On top of the rice were knobby black golf balls.

Louis opened the jar. The golf balls smelled of autumn in the woods, old port, and roasted chestnuts. "These are black truffles from Umbria," he said. "$600 a kilo. I had some white ones in last week. They sold for $2100 a kilo."

Louis sliced one open. He pointed to a webbing of white running through the thick black core. "This is tuber estivo—we call it the poor man's truffle." He put the truffle back in the jar. He didn't offer me a slice.

Mushrooms are everywhere in the restaurant with no name. There are bags of mushroom powder, dried cepes and morels, a mushroom statue, and posters of edible and inedible fungi on the wall. A television was on when we entered. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was talking about food. I heard him say "It's good. Just add cream of mushroom soup."

Louis picked up my bag of lawn mushrooms. "Smells nice, could be a pleurote." This was good news. The best known of the pleurotes is the oyster mushroom. It's a delicacy. 5 Saisons sells them for almost $30 a kilo. I noticed that Louis had a box of oyster mushrooms on the bottom of his fridge. They didn't look like mine. "Hmm," he said after a little more study. "I'll call Sergio."

Exotic mushrooms are big business. Louis buys them from Europe, Nova Scotia and the Western USA and Canada. Most varieties are wild and picked by hand. Louis says that mushroom lovers in Japan pay up to $2000 a kilo for a plate of Canadian grown matsutake. Another variety that was $6 a kilo wholesale last year now costs him $80.

There's a large jar of mushrooms on the counter. It's packed with almost 1000 marinated bolete mushrooms. Italians call them porcini. The jar sells for $3000. Louis thinks that no one will ever eat them. "It's like an expensive bottle of wine," he said. "It will look good in a fancy restaurant."

Sergio arrived. I asked him to look at my mushrooms, but they had disappeared. Antonio was cooking them. Sergio found a small uncooked piece and examined it. "You find it on a tree?" he asked. "No," I said, "it was on the lawn." "I cannot help you," he said. "I look for mushrooms in the forest. That is my specialty. You sure it wasn't on wood?"

The son of the mushroom king told us to sit down. He brought over a book, Mushrooms Demystified. Wild mushrooms are hard to identify. Some taste great, some can kill you. Most are somewhere in between. "Here's a good one," Louis said. "You won't die but you'll vomit like crazy."

The king of the mushrooms came to the table. My lawn mushrooms smelled wonderful. Good olive oil and garlic will do that. He brought over thin slices of pecorino cheese laced with truffles. Not bad. He put a thimble sized jar of truffle olive oil on the table to dot our bread. He carted out dishes of penne with wild mushrooms and a mound of braised chanterelles.

As we ate, Antonio told us that the restaurant has no name because they once put up a sign but didn't have a permit for the sign. "I had to pay a fine. I did it again but it wasn't the right size and I paid another fine. So we said that's all right. So the restaurant has no name."

Louis didn't join us. "I don't eat mushrooms anymore," he said. Never? "The only one I eat is the white truffle. Sometimes, I go to a good restaurant and tell the chef, 'please, cook me this'."

After all this, I had to put a mushroom recipe in the book. Here's the easiest one I know. Find someone who knows how to forage for young pleurotes or puffballs. If you don't know what you've got, forget it. Look for fresh oyster mushrooms in the fancy produce section of the supermarket. Wash and clean the mushrooms, dry them and then slice them to the width of your finger. Toss them in a bag that has a cup of flour and several shakes of salt and pepper. In a frying pan, heat some olive oil and a little butter until the butter is briskly bubbling. Shake off the excess flour and fry the mushrooms quick and crisp. Remove the mushrooms to a hot plate in the oven. Deglaze the pan with a good squeeze of lemon and add that to the mushrooms. Think twice about inviting the neighbours. This is good.
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