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In the Shadow of Ancient Ruins, an Israeli Chef Forages the Shore for Ingredients

By Sara Lieberman

12.12.19

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A forage-to-fork menu pairs with sweeping Mediterranean views at Helena.

Courtesy of Helena Restaurant

A forage-to-fork menu pairs with sweeping Mediterranean views at Helena.

Helena Restaurant in Caesarea is serving a menu full of shrubs and plants found steps from the sea.

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From my perch, at a large table inside a window-enclosed porch, giant rattan fans spinning overhead, I see nothing but the Mediterranean. Not a bad seat as I tend to a crispy piece of wood-fired flatbread drizzled in olive oil pomegranate syrup. Outside, about 20 feet away, a woman floats on a raft in the midday sun and I wonder: Does she know she can hop off, walk a few feet, pick a shrub growing by the shore, and snack on it for lunch?

Truth be told, she’d probably be better off getting dressed and joining me inside at the 15-year-old contemporary Levantine restaurant Helena, where Israeli chef Amos Sion highlights sea-foraged fare featuring edible plants such as Crithmum maritimum—better known sea fennel—and Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, or ice lettuce.

Most people come to Caesarea—a historic Israeli coastal site sandwiched between Tel Aviv and Haifa—for its Roman amphitheater, dating back thousands of years. But my main reason for visiting on this spring day is to sample its shore—specifically, the herbs and plants that Sion sources from the seaside to realize his unique take on popular dishes, like adding fried saltbush leaves to fish tartare and sprinkling sea arugula atop brown-buttered scallops.  

At Helena, seafood-heavy dishes are enhanced by shrubs and plants foraged just offshore, like sea fennel and ice lettuce.

The 43-year-old chef introduced a six-plate tasting menu of his foraged-flavored creations for the first time last winter and, due to its popularity, is doing so again this month; the menu launches December 20 and runs through early spring, the season when most of the foraged herbs are at their freshest. It will feature a handful of new culinary concepts that work in many of the same ingredients from the first round, with a price tag of $120 for two people, including dessert (à la carte plates are also an option; note reservations are not needed but recommended).

“It was a beautiful experience,” says Sion, of the inaugural degustation menu. “They’re new toys to play with, these ingredients that I didn’t know were growing right under my nose.”

Forager Yatir Sade, who learned the trade from local Arabic women living near the kibbutz he was raised on further north (near the port city of Akko), supplies Sion with up to eight different plants. Sade says there are well over 100 edible herbs found along Israel’s shores, though predominantly in and around this part of the coast near Caesarea.

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He tends to hunt all day—“It’s fun, for me,” he says—his cotton sack at the ready for storage to make sure his bounty doesn’t dry out. Although the items he scavenges differ in shape, texture, and taste, many have the same culinary-friendly features. “Plants that grow on the seashore need to deal with very tough conditions—high salinity, strong winds—which make them salty, sometimes bitter, but also thick and crispy because they collect a lot of water,” says Sade, adding, “Perfect for chefs to work with.”

Forager Yatir Sade collects eight different plants for chef Amos Sion, but says there are over 100 edible herbs along Israel’s shores.

Sion was particularly drawn to the ice lettuce, a Mediterranean sea herb that belongs to a family of succulents. Following his first taste of the curly greens, he was immediately inspired to create a version of a Caesar salad, “because the leaves are so juicy and crispy, with an oyster-like liquid flavor akin to anchovies.”

Combined with raw shrimp, brioche croutons, and a hard-boiled egg, this is the first dish I try—and, I’ll be honest, it is not an immediate love affair. For starters, the lettuce creates a cracker-like crunch when I chew it, almost as if it were thawing out (hence the name “ice lettuce”). And while it is refreshing, that “oyster-like” flavor really packs a fishy punch. (I’m usually the one who says, “Hold the anchovies, please!”)

While this salad will reappear on the new menu, Sion also plans to use ice lettuce in a reimagined version of flattened shrimp carpaccio. Along with the crunchy plant, he’ll top the shrimp with spicy strawberries. If it’s anything like the version I sample—with halved fresh cherries, red chili, pine nuts, and sea arugula—I may be adding a plane ticket back to the Holy Land to my holiday wish list. That, and the perfectly-cooked scallops, served with sea arugula and tart green grape, are my absolute highlights—both in flavor and presentation.

Sade, who leads sea foraging courses and tours near his home in neighboring Pardes Hanna (conducted in Hebrew, mostly, but available in English, based on demand), praises Sion’s ability to bring together such wild ingredients and flavors—especially since they can morph over time.

“What’s interesting about sea foraging,” says the 39-year-old forager, who began his gardening studies after his Israeli army service, “is that it’s not just that you’ll find new plants each month, but you’ll find the same plant in different conditions. So in the beginning of the season, it may only be the leaves that we use. But then we’ll pick the flowers, and a month later we’ll use the fruits or the seeds. Each element is completely different in taste and texture.”

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The parsley- and anise-reminiscent plant known as sea fennel, or sea carnitine, for example, which is often used as a seasoning, transitions from December through May, allowing Sion to use it differently in the same mussels dish. “Its earthy, salty flavor reminds me of a combination of celery and carrots, so in the beginning of the season, we make carnitine-infused white-wine mussels using the leaves,” Sion says, “and at the end of it, we use the flowers [as garnish]. The flavor and look changes.”

The bitter searocket herb, a flowering shrub known for its health properties (it’s loaded with iron and vitamin C), is worked into a creamy pesto sauce served with shrimp, or tossed with roasted pine nuts and grey mullet bottarga (a type of salted, cured fish roe).

This plant versatility not only allows for a wide variety of tastes, but enables Sade to be sustainable in his foraging approach, too. When out on the search, his bounty depends on a variety of factors: the season, the plant type, and most importantly, how much currently exists. While Israeli law prevents foragers from picking certain forest species such as za’atar (because of overharvesting in the ’70s), shrubs by the sea are not off-limits. Still, he only takes about 10 to 20 percent from each plant and is careful not to pluck from the root so that the life cycle continues.

“The seashore in Israel is very small and it’s getting smaller and smaller with new houses and hotels popping up,” says Sade, “which means that foraging is going to disappear one day. It’s important to protect what we currently have.”

He’s glad, however, to see creative chefs and adventurous foodies opening their minds to this practice—especially since it’s a way to connect the many cultures in the country.

“[Sea foraging] is not new for Arabs in Israel, but to the Jewish community, it is. Now, all people who are curious about food and where it comes from, and who want to be closer and connected to the land, can enjoy this practice,” he says.

Helena may not be the only restaurant in the world playing with edible discoveries found where the waves hit the land—for instance, San Francisco’s Lord Stanley did a sea-to-table series in 2018 and France’s detour-worthy, Michelin-starred La Marine regularly injects its butter with seaweed—but it’s certainly the only one in Israel to devote an entire menu to them.

As I sit there munching on ice lettuce, sucking on saltbush, and staring at the shore, I enter a fairly mesmerized state. This dining experience, powered by an intimate communion with both plate and place, is perhaps akin to how Sade describes his mood while out foraging: “It’s part of the job to sit there and try to feel the atmosphere—to feel what the forest wants, what the stream of the water wants, what the soil wants.”

And, in this case, what the stomach wants: more.

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