Chef Cameron Lee Dunlap has a story he likes to tell about his food influences. In 2016, he was foraging spruce tips in the Tillamook State Forest for use in his dinner series Origin Wild. In order to get higher in a tree for better spruce tips, he climbed upon a log, only to fall when the log split. Laughing at his own accident, he found the log was squirming with life, worms and other creatures whose purpose was to make new life from the dead wood. Later, he would mimic that sight with a chicory root lavash cracker rolled into a tube, stuffed with venison tartare and dusted with spruce powder and pickled elderberries, served at his pop-up.
It’s that kind of dish diners will find at his upcoming restaurant Morchella, opening this fall in the intimate dining room previously home to Verdigris. Dunlap, who currently runs the kitchen at Northwest Portland’s Fireside, plans to focus on ingredients that proliferate in Oregon’s wilds but are less commonly seen on menus: dandelion greens, wood sorrel, oxeye daisies, wild roses, wild sumac, elderflowers and elderberries, and lots — lots — of mushrooms.
The major focus of the menu at Morchella, whose name comes from the genus of morels, will be on foraged and wild foods, with an emphasis on vegetation over game. Dunlap wants to emulate survival foraging as much as possible with the menu, which means diners will often encounter mushrooms, roots, sea beans, berries, and greens that are often considered weeds. “If I’m foraging for real, to survive, I’m going to be really lucky if I get more than one protein in my meal,” Dunlap says. “That’s going to be what’s available in real life... so I’m trying to emulate that by creating an entire meal with wild things, maybe with one piece of meat [in a dish].”
When it comes to that meat, Dunlap is turning to Nicky USA, a popular local purveyor and butcher. The meat for the seasonal menus will often involve wild game— things like freshwater fish, quail, venison, and pheasant. There will also be room for whole-animal butchery, so diners could potentially see something like a goose breast in one dish and a dirty wild rice with confit goose leg in another, cooked with goose broth. One kind of meat that will never be on the menu, though, is beef. “The only way a burger would be on there is an elk burger with an acorn bun I make myself,” Dunlap says.
The starting menu will consist of three or four entrees, three or four smaller plates, and a dessert menu with ingredients like marshmallows made from foraged mallow root and chicory roots, which add a “burnt coffee, caramel flavor” to dishes; they’re some of Dunlap’s favorite dessert ingredients. Morchella will also offer a multi-course tasting menu with dishes from the regular menu as well as some other items, priced around $60.
The restaurant’s small cocktail menu will often involve kitchen ingredients, like shrubs from fermented plums or juices from wild berries. For wine, he wants to celebrate local natural wines with an emphasis on winemakers of color.
Beyond the foraged, seasonal menu, Dunlap wants to make sure his restaurant is an equitable workplace: He plans to abolish the distinction between back and front of house — with his small crew of cooks training as servers —sharing tips with the whole staff. He hopes to provide a wage that would be around $30 an hour after tips, and have 30-minute breaks for each eight-hour shift, with the team working together to open and close each night.
The small restaurant space on Fremont currently belongs to Verdigris, but chef Johnny Nunn plans to move the French restaurant permanently into his Daisy Cafe space where it is now. As it’s already built out as a restaurant, it won’t take much time for Morchella to move in. Dunlap hopes to start serving customers in mid-October at 1315 NE Fremont, with dinner service Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Updated Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 at 1:42 p.m.: This story was updated to include the restaurant’s new anticipated opening month.