Maine Seaweed Is the New Kale, Says Experimental Portland Chef David Levi

Kombu, kelp, and dulse as sea vegetables, not weeds. Be respectful.

To stay true to his restaurant’s wildly ambitious, strictly hyperlocal ethos, Vinland’s David Levi has had to get familiar with some unexpected products. Sure, Levi’s made good use of the lobsters and clams Maine is famous for, but he’s trying to push his customers too — to get them to re-examine their landscape in the context of food. That landscape is covered in seaweed, so it’s only fitting that Vinland’s plates now are as well.

Cooking with seaweed, a savory and nutritional powerhouse, has presented Levi with some culinary challenges, but the core issue is cultural. He has to convince people used to slipping on the stuff or complaining about its smell that tide-to-table makes sense.

“We should think of it as a vegetable,” Levi tells Inverse. Seaweed’s reputation is briny and slimy enough as it is, and associating it with unwanted backyard invaders is not helping. According to Levi, who uses the flavor-filled vegetables in everything from semi-sweet desserts to rich roast meat dishes, we should want to put seaweed in our mouths. But, unless you’re especially accustomed to eating Japanese food or are an old-school Scot, it might take some getting used to.

“Seaweed has’t been explored in modern western cuisine,” Levi says.

In his cooking, Levi uses six species, hand-harvested by the local Atlantic Holdfast Seaweed Company — which, notably, refers to their crops as “sea vegetables.” There’s meaty nori, which we’ve all encountered in sushi, and wakame, which lends its mild sweetness to miso soup. For an umami blast, he says, “nothing can beat kombu.” Irish moss provides a gelatinous texture, replacing vegan-unfriendly gelatin. Levi throws dried sugar kelp into his eggs, and the “bacon seaweed” dulse can be a dish-saving last-minute flavor bomb.

At Vinland, seaweed hasn’t taken center stage yet, but it’s been widely acclaimed for its supporting roles. Levi gets particularly excited about a monkfish cheek dish that gets an umami kick with an emulsion of shiitake mushrooms and dulse, as well as a savory tapenade made from a combination of meaty kombu and dehydrated melon and tomato that “just melts over pork.” He’s especially proud of his stealthy addition of nutty roasted kombu into a semi-sweet panna cotta set with Irish moss and served with a sugar kelp cookie.

“It’s so eye-opening,” says Levi. “It’s so different from what people expect. But there’s not anything especially challenging — it’s just delicious.”

And that’s the point, says Levi. “You can throw dulse into trail mix. Seriously, it would be really nice.”

Eating it won’t hurt our bodies, either. That’s because seaweed is, broadly speaking, a low-cholesterol, low-fat, high-iodine superfood, and a good source of calcium and vitamins A and C to boot.

Most importantly, says Levi, making seaweed a staple food won’t ravage the local ecosystem. He’s dead serious about sustainability — his restaurant’s mission is to preserve the Earth by taking down industrial food — and bringing attention to foods like seaweed, which satisfy our cravings for nutrition, novelty, and flavor without sacrificing ethics. “As long as we’re sensible about harvesting and growing it,” he says, “It’s one of the most sustainable foods we can have.”

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