Welcome back to OpenTable’s Signature Dish column, in which we take a look at a restaurant’s standout item and how it rose to the top. Here now is Top Chef winner Kristen Kish’s mafaldine with champignon sauce.
Kristen Kish still can’t believe that she’s associated with mushrooms. Her knack for working magic with mushrooms became known to the public during her winning 2013 stint on Top Chef season 10.
“The first main challenge I won, I literally cooked a side of white button mushrooms. I won money for it!” the renowned chef says in disbelief. “I was just as surprised as anyone else. It became ‘Kristen and her mushrooms.’”
But the label stuck, and at Kish’s hip Austin restaurant Arlo Grey, the signature offering once again features the ingredient. The creamy pasta dish — mafaldine with champignon sauce, pearl onion, and parmesan — is one of just two dishes that’s been on Arlo Grey’s dinner menu since it opened in June 2018. The umami-packed pasta is also sweetly sentimental.
“It’s a nod to my love affair with Hamburger Helper since I was a kid,” Kish says. “If you put a box of Hamburger Helper in front of me, I wouldn’t say no. I’d be really excited to cook it. I don’t seek it out, but it does hold a special memory.”
By using the lowly grocery market staple as inspiration and dressing the dish up with fancier words — “Champignon is just the French term for a white button mushroom, the most humble, basic type of mushroom you can find,” Kish says — she’s able to “bridge the gap between homemade, restaurant-quality things with things we grew up on that maybe came out of a box and still bring some sort of comfort.”
The dish begins with mafaldine made fresh about every three days, using an Italian pasta maker and local Barton Springs Mill flour, to “bring Texas, and a story, to a very humble dish.” She says she chose the frilly, sculptural mafaldine shape for the way its “ridges act like little spoons that help get the sauce to your mouth, by clinging to the dish’s creamy, reduced sauce and mushrooms.” (A version of the comforting pasta in Kish’s October 2017 cookbook uses more common ribbon-like pasta such as pappardelle or tagliatelle, to make the dish more accessible to home cooks.)
For the sauce, Kish takes the mushroom caps and dehydrates them until they’re very dark and about a third of the size. “We’re basically taking all that moisture out and condensing the flavor,” she says.
Next up is the sauce, a mixture of sauteed shallots, thyme, garlic, the shrunken mushrooms — which act like sponges for the sauce, Kish says — red wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, chicken stock, cream, salt, and pepper, all reduced down until thick enough to coat the pasta. When a diner orders the dish, the sauce gets tossed with some pasta water, a pat of butter, freshly chopped parsley, and cooked mafaldine, then garnished with aged shaved parmesan.
All that leads to the pasta being the restaurant’s top seller. Kish has even managed to make converts out of avowed funghi haters and skeptics, which she attributes to changing the texture of the mushrooms into something jerky-like.
“If you close your eyes and eat it, I’m not convinced someone would be 100 percent able to tell that it’s a white button mushroom,” she says. “It’s just a really good pasta.”
Beyond those who simply enjoy the dish, which she calls Arlo Grey’s “unanimous favorite,” some Kish superfans eat it and remember her mushroom prowess from Top Chef, seven years ago.
“People often tell our servers, ‘Oh, I love the way she cooked mushrooms’ or ‘She taught me how to do so much with mushrooms,” Kish says. “It’s something I don’t think will be forgotten, and I’m okay with that. I’m associated with cooking white button mushrooms until the end of time!”
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Alexandra Ilyashov is an NYC-based (and -bred) freelance writer and editor covering fascinating people and trends in food, fashion, wellness, and entertainment, for New York, Eater, T, and more.