How Portland’s star seafood chef stays sustainable

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The fifth course to land on my table at Erizo, a restaurant celebrating its first year in Portland, Ore., comes on an oversize metal tray filled with ice, five dishes of chilled seafood each cradled in elegant seashells representing the shellfish within: clams, crab, and oysters.

The clams are horseneck—Oregon’s most common clam—maligned for their tough texture and more often used for bait than fine dining, though you would never know from this version served with green bamboo. The crab comes tossed in a custardy complementary sauce of acorn barnacles, which hitch a ride to the kitchen aboard enormous surf mussels (used for Bolognese over gnocchetti pasta in the following course). The oyster is actually only the bivalve’s adductor muscle, taken from oysters too old for selling as is. The bodies become oyster sauce, and just this piece comes to Erizo, where it is paired with wasabi and kelp barbecue sauce.

Sustainability is an ever-changing spectrum. For people
like Erizo chef Jacob Harth, who says he is committed to the highest levels of
sustainability, widely published standards like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch don’t go far or move
fast enough. Every item served through the 20-course tasting menu meets Harth’s
own exacting standards—and works toward his goal of taking pressure off the
region’s strained star fisheries, decimating invasive species, and highlighting
native ingredients that need attention to survive.

Chef Jacob Harth of Erizo, named one of Eater’s “Young Gun” chefs in 2019 for his work at single-catch, sustainable seafood restaurant Erizo.
Justin Katigbak

Being sustainable, in the seafood business, often means that a fishery is simply not overfished or causing detriment to the environment. At Erizo, it more often means that using those fish dynamically improves other fisheries, whether by collecting and serving invasive species, providing an outlet for bycatch (otherwise unsellable species caught in pursuit of different seafood), or using up the scraps that would otherwise go to waste.

The commitment means sourcing goes beyond calling a distributor, or even doing the fishing himself (of which he does a fair amount). Harth worked with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to identify an invasive species of sea snail and get a license to harvest it. Harth works directly with fishermen to find bycatch like the giant Pacific octopus and wolf eel, which crawls into crab pots and tries to eat the profitable shellfish. Wolf eel, which Harth often smokes, once fed the region’s indigenous people but has no commercial fishery today.

For the fishermen, bycatch is a problem: Dogfish, for example, are so rampant that lingcod or black cod fishermen could pull up all their lines and find that’s all they’ve caught—and then they lose money taking each one off the hook and throwing it back. “We’re trying to provide an outlet for that,” Harth explains, adding that he thinks it’s one of the best fish for frying fish-and-chips style. He serves it with a celery tartar sauce.

“Everybody wants salmon and halibut,” Harth says. “The
fish stocks never have a chance to recover.”

The Erizo team, out at sea.
Emily Joan Greene

Harth has already received national-level attention for his unique, groundbreaking effort: Eater named him to its “Young Guns” list of promising culinary stars and national Best New Restaurant list; Serious Eats covered Erizo in its Portland guide; and Bon Appetit ran a piece about the “trash fish” it serves.

Inside Erizo.
Dina Avila

Locally, Harth hasn’t felt as big of a connection. “We don’t have a huge seafood market here; there’s no culture for it here,” he says, noting the city’s inland location as a factor. Even though most of what he serves comes from nearby—up to an hour’s drive away—Harth says it’s been a challenge to get local patrons to appreciate the seafood that surrounds the city. The majority of his clientele has been made up of tourists.

Furthermore, a $125 tasting menu (plus $75 for wine) in Portland is a high-priced meal for locals to stomach, even if similar in New York City might cost more than double that. But Harth reiterates this isn’t just entry-level seafood.

Familiarity breeds enjoyment, meaning people like what they know, an effect sometimes called mere-exposure. Just by knowing of something, people like it more. This puts a spot like Erizo—introducing people to more than a dozen types of seafood each night—at a disadvantage. The uninviting names of the creatures don’t do much to help the appeal: monkey face eel, gaper clam, and chub mackerel. These are Patagonian toothfish before its Chilean sea bass makeover, mahi-mahi when it was still called dolphin, and slimehead fish before it found the name orange roughy.

Bycatch on ice.
Emily Joan Greene

But if anything, these fish take more effort and expense to source and more labor to prepare than more prominent species. The experience and Harth’s cooking are definitively luxury, and some of the more recognizable species on the menu reflect that: abalone, sea urchin, and Dungeness crab.

The flip side of the mere-exposure effect is that the more you know of or try, the more you enjoy. Harth recognizes that part of what Erizo is doing is serving as a showroom for these local foods, and that if the restaurant keeps doing what it has been trying, it can bring sustainable seafood to more audiences beyond the Pacific Northwest.

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