OLD SAYBROOK – After finishing off a scallop dish with cucumber-kelp salad and a white chocolate custard dessert topped with candied kelp at Liv’s Oyster Bar Thursday evening, Jessica Hampton was ready to try the Shark Bait cocktail – also infused with the sea-cultivated vegetable.
“Smells so refreshing,” she said before taking her first sip on the outdoor patio. “Like you’re at the shore.”
It was the popular restaurant’s first night of serving kelp-inspired recipes during a New England Kelp Harvest Week promotion that runs through May 1, and coincides with the annual harvest.
Nearly 50 venues in Connecticut and Rhode Island are taking part in the second annual event, sponsored by the Pawcatuck-based Sugar Kelp Cooperative and designed to introduce diners to the culinary, nutritional, environmental, and economic aspects of the sea algae and the industry growing around it.
It may be an unusual ingredient for most diners, but within a couple hours of opening Thursday afternoon the growing crowd at Liv’s was not being shy about ordering dishes off the special kelp-week menu.
“Everybody’s going for the scallop crudo,” that Hampton had ordered, said Robert Marcarelli, the restaurant’s operations manager. “I think we sold ten already. Going into dinner we’ll definitely be selling the halibut,” which features a mushroom-kelp puree under the pan-seared fish and spring vegetables tossed with kelp vinaigrette.
The restaurant got its supply of kelp through the cooperative, which supports the growth of the industry by investing in small kelp farmers and creating market opportunities for them.
Long a tradition in Asian culture, sugar kelp is growing in popularity in the U.S., according to the fisheries division of the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
NOAA describes sugar kelp as a nutritious food that is high in fiber, vitamins and minerals that is typically used in sushi, soups, salads and other products. When it’s dried, a white sweet-tasting powder forms on the frond.
Growing season runs from late fall through the winter and the harvest is in late April, before the water gets too warm. Being a cold-water crop, it also gives shellfishermen an off-season harvest opportunity.
It is typically grown by attaching kelp spores to a string wound around a length of PVC pipe.
Once the spores grow into small plants, the string is unwound from the pipe and attached to a long rope that is placed in natural seawater, including at an increasing number of farms in Long Island Sound. Each frond can grow up to several inches wide and 12-feet long.
Recognizing that the brownish-green frond in its natural state may not be that attractive or appetizing, Liv’s executive chef came up with recipes that blend it into dishes in more subtle fashion.
“Kelp has an interesting and unique texture so we’re trying to figure out different ways to incorporate it into the dishes so you get the flavor but it’s not super chewy,” chef David Mitchell said as he worked on some plates in the busy kitchen. “We want to make it a little more appealing.”
Jonathan McGee, who is handling promotion of the event for the kelp cooperative, said the restaurant event is making noticeable strides in familiarizing the public with it.
“These restaurants, through their creative efforts and hard work, are the most important part of the kelp market’s growth,” McGee said. “And with this growth we all benefit from everything that locally cultivated sugar kelp gives us.”
Marcarelli said kelp is a food that checks a lot of boxes for diners and restaurants looking to expand their experience and offerings.
“It’s using ingredients in our backyard,” he said. “Finding sustainable ingredients is a big thing these days and trying to find things that don’t impact the environment. It’s also about getting people to start eating outside the box and at the same time for us to come up with dishes that are approachable.”
The promotion will raise funds for the World Central Kitchen/WCK #ChefsForUkraine, the CT Restaurant Association and the RI Hospitality Association.
Also, The Yellow Farmhouse Education Center in Stonington will host students in New London, Norwalk, and Stonington for virtual field trips to learn more about kelp farming.
Virtual programs for the general public will focus on culinary use of sugar kelp and its nutritional values, cocktail creations with sugar kelp, and historical significance of it in the region.
Participating restaurants and other venues are: Oyster Club; The Shipwright’s Daughter; Whitecrest Eatery; The Essex; The Whelk; Oko Westport; Vintage Colchester; Fjord Fish Market; Tavern On State; Bywater; Matunuck Oyster Bar; Kawa Ni; Stone Acres Farm Stand; Don Memo; The Malted Barley; Continuum Distilling; Sift; Fiddleheads Coop; Mix; Grey Sail Brewing; South End Restaurant Group; The Bakeshop At Bywater; The Cottage; Healthy Planeat; White Gate Farm; Flanders Fish Market; Millwright’s; River Tavern; Otto; Nanas Bakery; Olmo; Atlantic Seafood; Liv’s Oyster Bar; Shell And Bones; South Lane Bistro; Sea House; Honeycone Craft Ice Cream; Nanas Bakery & Pizza – Westerly; Taproot; Noah’s; Branch Line; Cinder; Goldburgers and Surfridge Brewing Company East.