Jacob Harth is waterproof. He’s wearing waders that go up to his chest and carrying an empty white plastic bucket. Soon, the bucket will be full. We’re at the Oregon coast, near Garibaldi. It’s a two-hour drive from Erizo, the restaurant Harth opened in February 2019 in Portland. He makes this drive at least once a week, winding through the forest and country roads to come to the shore. There are birders with binoculars, families exploring the tide pools, a lone harbor seal pup on a rock waiting for its mother to return. Then there’s Harth and his partner and chef de cuisine Nick Van Eck pulling up handfuls of kelp and seaweed that grow so exuberantly that the shore at low tide is more plant than water. They’re careful to harvest it in a way that it will grow back again and again.
This is where Harth and Van Eck have been gathering the seaweed he uses at Erizo since the winter. A few months ago, they would have been out here with headlamps and heavy coats in the dark. Once the weather was so bad, Harth recalls, there was sideways rain coming up from the tidal rocks, hitting them from all angles. But today the sun is shining. Harth explains that when you see flowers popping up on your yard in spring, the same thing is happening in the ocean. Their boots slosh as they step carefully to avoid squishing the many creatures that live on the rocks or in the water.
Harth, who was named a 2019 Eater Young Gun after opening Erizo at only 27 years old, formerly worked at Portland restaurants St. Jack and Bar Casa Vale (located in the same building). But he felt hampered by the fact that, because of an average restaurant’s scale, truly sustainable dishes could never be part of a regular menu. At a small tasting-menu-only restaurant, however, he could have the flexibility he needed. Now every weekend, Harth serves roughly 80 customers his 20-course sustainable seafood tasting menu. To go beyond even what commercial fishermen were able to source for the restaurant, Harth got a fishing license of his own, using it to collect items few other chefs are using. Harth is working every day, he says, but his time is split between the restaurant and the shore.
Erizo’s menu is based on invasive species, bycatch, and in-season seafood from sustainable fisheries. Harth’s mission of bringing a new kind of sustainable seafood restaurant to Portland, a river city without much in the way of traditional seafood offerings, is what brings him out to the coast week after week — and what earned the restaurant a place on Eater’s Best New Restaurants list. Much of what he harvests from the shoreline — whether beach coriander, sea grapes, or gooseneck barnacles — doesn’t exist in commercial fisheries. In other countries, these foods are delicacies, but few Oregonians even harvest them for home use.
Harth did have to get a commercial license to be able to harvest for his restaurant, but he wants to support fishermen by buying seafood that has a commercial market, things like black cod or even wolf eel and octopus bycatch. It took Harth years to find suppliers that could tell him exactly where and when each fish was caught, a level of transparency he wanted in his seafood but that can be hard to come by. The majority of his menu comes from those suppliers; he likens the food he harvests to a special addition to the menu. “We’re not relying on this stuff,” he says.
But he still his plenty to harvest, like the gooseneck barnacles he pries off the rocks at Barview Jetty. He says the barnacles look like “dinosaur toes,” with black sections connecting to the rock and triangles at the end that look like mother of pearl. The insides, red phallic-looking things, are steamed until the skin falls off. Then he slices the goosenecks thin. What was alien in its home environment looks approachable on Erizo’s plates. Harth says they taste surprisingly like crab.
It would be easy to dine at the restaurant and miss just how much work has gone into obtaining every item on your plate. Harth doesn’t make a show out of the restaurant’s mission. “I think there’s a time and a place for education with these kinds of things,” he says, “and it’s not while you’re eating dinner.” He’s hoping, instead, to introduce people to these products, fresh from the Oregon coast, to show diners that there’s more than overharvested salmon or tuna in the sea. A lot of his hand-harvested shellfish is served raw or as close to their natural form as he can get them. “We don’t do a lot of interference,” Harth says. “It’s just so good on its own.”
At the clam beds in Netarts, Harth digs up dark-shelled butter clams on the beach with a shovel, then scoops each one out with his hands. They’re easy clams to find, Harth says, since they’re large and don’t dig. They’re also the “most delicious and most versatile of the bay clams.” The meat inside is a deep pink that verges on red. At the restaurant, Harth will carefully cut it into sections — the best parts are served raw, as part of Erizo’s shellfish tray, and others, like the adductor muscle that holds the clam closed or the “gut bag” (which Harth describes as “flavorful, but not an appealing texture”) helps make a garum fish sauce.
His next move, he hopes, is free-diving off the jetty. Harth says that since sea urchins and cucumbers have to be harvested by hand on the ocean floor, it’s hard to get a steady supply. People have died diving for sea urchins, and the areas with commercial fisheries often have conditions that make it too dangerous. But Harth is thinking of doing it himself, getting some dive training, and jumping in. Who knows what delicious things he might find?