The air was laden with the briny smell of the ocean and the musty odor of wet seaweed. It was a clear day, and we had a glimpse of the Isle of Shoals in the distance and sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean. At low tide, we found puddles teeming with sea life as we waded further into the water.
“It’s worth the effort,” chef Evan Hennessey said, urging us on as we negotiated through the slippery rocks and shallow pools. “Look, here! An explosion of color — sea lettuce, Irish moss, sugar kelp!” Hennessey said as he picked up a long ribbon of sticky, brown kelp for us to see. “We dehydrate this and put it in all of our stocks. It adds another extra layer and depth of flavor,” he said.
We sloshed to the next seawater pool, where Hennessey snatched a floating blob of reddish-brown weeds. “Gracilaria,” he said. “Taste it.” We nibbled a small piece, and were surprised that it tasted OK, more of the earth than of the sea, a little like mushrooms. “I like to use this with sea urchins,” he said, moving on to the next pool.
We were foraging with chef Hennessey, along the New Hampshire coastline. Hennessey, the chef-owner of the one-of-a-kind Stages restaurant in Dover, N.H., was clearly in his element. “I love it when foraging is on the daily prep list,” he says. “It’s really inspiring; there’s a thousand flavors right here.”
We’d met Hennessey at the northern entrance to Odiorne State Park, where we walked a short path through the woods and along freshwater inlets, leading to the ocean’s edge. Hennessey’s then four-year-old son, Kaden, ran ahead, carrying a bucket to house any found treasures, while we kept our noses to the ground. “Mugwort grows all over here,” Hennessey said as he picked and offered a taste of the frilly, green and white weed. It tasted a bit like celery, parsley and fennel. “I use it in pasta dishes; it brings the flavor of three or four herbs at once,” he says. A little ways down the path, a patch of sea rocket gets him excited. “It has a beautiful mustard seed flavor,” he told us. “I’m experimenting with curing the pod and making a mustard out of it.”
We tasted juniper berries (Hennessey also uses the needles for curing and the stems for smoking), the invasive Japanese knotweed (when young, it tastes a little like rhubarb), staghorn sumac (think: raspberries and citrus!), tiny baby stalks of daylilies (cucumbers!); sheep sorrel (also citrus-y), and the leaves of Queen Anne’s Lace (carrots). As we got closer to the open ocean, Hennessey discovered a crop of sea peas. “We use these a lot,” he told us. “We use them raw as garnish, saute them, and flash-fry the tendrils in rosemary oil.” Kaden stopped for a moment to give one a try, and then asked for another.
You don’t have to forage for your meal at chef Hennessey’s Stages to enjoy one of the most distinctive dining experiences in New England. The tiny restaurant on the third floor of a renovated mill building has only a handful of tables and an eight-person counter in the kitchen, where you can watch Hennessey perform culinary alchemy. His el Bulli-like, experimental approach is as far from mass market dining as you can get. Order the Secret 8 menu and Hennessey will prepare eight, created-on-the-spot courses, based on ingredients that were foraged, or available from local farmers and fishermen and women. You’ll be totally in the hands of Hennessey. Take a look at the 12-course Nature/Technique menu and you’ll see only a list of 12 ingredients. A recent Nature/Technique menu included the following: rutabaga, cabbage, egg, scallop, mushrooms, chips, croquette, goose leg prosciutto, “shades of blue,” sweet potato, parsnips and sweets. The list of ingredients and the dishes Hennessey creates from it change nightly, according to availability and inspiration. If you must know what you’re getting, opt for the four course, prix fixe menu, that also changes frequently and might include dishes like Vietnamese potbelly lomo with pine candles, cavatelli with vegetable Bolognese, cusk with sea peas, and local pig with turnips. For dessert: how about parsnips with merengue or beets with mint, spruce and violets (Hennessey prefers savory over sweet desserts.) “We have a canvas and we have a bunch of paints,” Hennessey says. “I love the refinement and creativity that can be done on such a small scale.”
On a recent visit, we tasted sea urchins with gracilaria, scallop crude with dried sea lettuce, oysters served with a dulce mignonette, fresh pollock steamed in sea water with pureed sea lettuce, chocolate ice cream thickened with Irish moss, and chocolate mousse and homemade marshmallows set on a caramelized beet glaze with basil oil highlights. Garnishes and ingredients of growing-in-the-wild flowers, buds, tendrils, leaves and pods were artistically placed and used throughout the dishes. It was delicious and different, and we knew exactly where much of it came from, culled on a morning walk through seaside woods and along the New Hampshire shoreline.
Stages, One Washington St., Dover, NH, 603-842-4077, www.stages-dining.com. Kitchen Table open Wed.-Sat.; dining room open Fri.-Sat. Reservations required. Four course, prix fixe $50, Secret 8 $100, 12 course Nature/Technique $150.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.