On the waterfront

Chef Amos Sion strives for excellence at Caesarea’s Helena restaurant.

The Caesarea Port and local markets provide the fare for Amos Sion’s artisan menu. (photo credit: BOAZ LAVI)
The Caesarea Port and local markets provide the fare for Amos Sion’s artisan menu.
(photo credit: BOAZ LAVI)
Overlooking the blue Mediterranean and ancient restored port of Caesarea is the Helena Restaurant. There, diners may choose from a rich menu of aged meat and seafood, Israeli wines, and dishes rounded out with seasonal vegetables.
Chef Amos Sion takes full advantage of the fabulous ingredients available locally. The best of fish, meat and produce are carried into his kitchen daily. His passion is developing dishes that savor of salt air, the season, and the culinary character of the Galilee.
Sion co-owns Helena with Uri Yarmias, of the Uri Buri Restaurant in Acre, and Daniel Zach of the Carmela Restaurant in Tel Aviv. He studied at the Tadmor cooking school in Herzliya and has worked in the kitchens of influential chefs Yonatan Roschfeld and Erez Komorovsky.
“Komorovsky is a genius,” says Sion. “It was great working with him. The way I see food and cooking came to maturity in his kitchen.”
After completing his army service Sion explored exotic foods on his long travels throughout Southeast Asia and India, and during three years working in Alsace-Lorraine.
Upon his return, however, his palate followed his Israeli heart. Helena’s menu is an example of the fusion cooking that has become a global trend. Its signature dish, saltwater fish baked in tehina, hints at the Arab-Galilee influence that pervades his food.
The chef is always curious and open to all types of cooking, recognizing excellence wherever it appears.
“I read a lot about cooking. I’m always learning something new. And I’ll learn from anyone – it could be the dishwasher at Helena. If he shows me something he cooked that’s really good, I want to know what’s in it and how he made it.”
Sion knew from an early age that cooking was his calling.
“I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I first knew that I’d become a cook. But for my bar-mitzva gift, I asked for an oven to bake in,” he recounts.
At the heart of his culinary philosophy are fresh, local ingredients. He shops for Helena himself, driving to the port early in the morning when the day’s catch comes in. The fishermen already know his preferences, he says.
The fresh produce comes from the local markets, and Sion knows exactly the season for every wild and cultivated vegetable. He’s especially fond of cooking with vegetables whose seasons are short: green fava beans, green garlic, green chickpeas and akub (a wild artichoke).
“There’s something special about cooking with a vegetable that has only a four-week season, and making the most of it,” he says.
SION TAKES pride in his artisan menu. “I keep very few imported ingredients in my kitchen. We make everything ourselves, out of locally sourced ingredients. The breads and pastas, the ice creams and sorbets – all made at Helena.”
And he wants his menu to resonate with the seasons.
“I love to enter the kitchen on a stormy winter day, when the sea is raging out there, and smell fish soup cooking on the range,” he says.
When asked what his favorite dishes are, he laughs.
“I like almost everything,” he says. “As long as it’s very fresh, the best of its kind.”
Sion is concerned with sustainability.
“It’s just wrong that there’s no supervision over fishing in Israel,” he says seriously. “I refuse to buy the small, young fish that are harvested in big nets. Those are fish that should be thrown back into the sea to grow and reproduce.”
What’s a day in the life of chef Amos Sion like? “You’re always working under pressure, in a restaurant kitchen. You get there early to make sure the supplies are in and the kitchen’s set up. As soon as the breakfast service is done, you have to get the lunch service ready, and then you have to start preparing dinner. It can seem like chaos, with workers shouting and plates almost flying out, but underneath, there’s an almost military order and chain of command. I love the adrenaline rush, actually. And it’s a big satisfaction when everything is working well and a new dish is plated beautifully.
“I don’t take many breaks, but sometimes, I like to have a glass of white wine out to the balcony and sit gazing at the sea while I’m sipping. A chef’s life is lived almost entirely in the kitchen; that’s the way it is. I have a wife and a four-year-old daughter. That’s the one thing that’s lacking: time to be with them over the day. Whenever I have free time, I spend it with my family.”
But there are holidays. He and his family travel in Europe and the Orient, choosing countries according to cuisine. His wife works in the wine industry; she plans the wine routes through the countries they visit.
When Sion was a student at Tadmor, he would set up a kiosk at weekend food festivals and earn extra income selling freshly cooked fish. Now Helena’s masterfully created food and spectacular waterfront setting make it one of the country’s most prestigious places to eat. It seems that the ambitious student who became a leading chef hasn’t missed a step on his way.
Helena Old City, Caesarea Port Not kosher. Telephone: (04) 610-1018 Reservations recommended
Amberjack tartar with watercress sumac and pine nuts
Note: You may substitute arugula leaves or chopped wild mustard leaves for the watercress.
100 gr. amberjack filet or other white fish, such as trout, cubed
1 tsp. sumac powder
1 Tbsp. pine nuts
1 handful watercress or arugula leaves Juice of ½ lemon
1 small radish, sliced thinly Salt to taste
2 Tbsp. sheep’s yogurt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
Spoon yogurt over the serving plate. Mix the remaining ingredients in a bowl and pile the mix onto the yogurt. Dribble a little olive oil over all.
To garnish: Spread ½ cup peeled, cooked fresh ful beans around the tartar, or peeled cucumbers sliced into julienne strips.