Dining on sea snail may sound less than appetizing. Dining on abalone sounds luscious. But abalone's white, delicately flavored briny flesh is essentially that of a sea snail: a muscled mollusk, which consumes algae that gives abalone's ear-shaped shell a distinct color. Once plentiful off California's coast, over-fishing and other factors killed commercial harvesting of the tasty gastropod. These days, all of the abalone found on restaurant menus comes from aqua farms (in California, Hawaii, Mexico, Korea and other locales) while California's native red abalone is aqua-farmed in Santa Barbara, Cayucos and Monterey, making for a sustainable, locavore ingredient that's rated a best choice by Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.
"We're a small but real slice of the farm-to-table movement," says Doug Bush of Santa Barbara's Cultured Abalone. "The red abalone is as California as anything; people here have been eating abalone here for thousands of years." Bush oversees the operation that occupies a quiet canyon with private cove just north of Goleta. The mollusks are kept in open-air salt-water tanks and fed the native, fast-growing, red kelp that's harvested just offshore.
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Much of the Cultured Abalone's output goes to Asian markets but up-and-down the coast, SoCal chefs are increasingly utilizing the sweetly flavored mollusk. "I use it because it's local, luxurious and rare," says Il Grano's chef-owner Sal Marino, who dices farmed abalone for Il Grano's abalone-stuffed ravioli. After it's diced and slivered, the abalone is mixed into a paste of Santa Barbara spot prawns and seasoned with herbs.
Newport Beach's The Arches takes a traditional approach: pan frying abalone steak (after pounding it to tenderize the muscle) in butter, lemon and white wine. At Nobu Malibu, Hawaiian farmed abalone (awabi) is offered as sushi or cooked in light sake, soy and garlic sauce sake accompanied by shitake mushrooms and asparagus. A nightly sell-out at the Lazy Ox, Monterey Bay abalone is pan seared and paired with English peas in an artichoke barigoule (a flavorful artichoke broth). Pismo Beach's Casey Walcott (of the Sea Venture Resort restaurant) turns out a bright Cayucos abalone ceviche, in a Meyer lemon marinade with black bean relish on a bed of local Bloom microgreens. At Santa Barbara's Coast restaurant in the Canary Hotel, chef Brian Park presents mini, half-dollar sized abalone cooked in the shell, lightly seasoned and caramelized with olive oil, accompanied by a local seaweed mignonette.
Abalone's texture is a bit like squid or octopus. However, as abalone eat only seaweed, unlike underwater predators squid and octopus, there's a floral brininess. Marino describes the flavor has beyond "squid" with none of the fishiness. They're sea-living grazing vegetarians with an ocean garden flavor.
"Abalone used to be cheaper than steak around here up the 1970s," says Ray Fields president of the Abalone Farm in Cayucos. The thriving wild fishery was decimated by the mid-1990s; 1997 saw a complete moratorium on harvesting. Today, wild abalone can only be culled north of San Francisco Bay; there are numerous restrictions and permits are required. During the summer, the Abalone Farm welcomes visitors for public tours to its vast outdoor tank field. Visitors can learn about the life cycle of the abalone from free-swimming larvae to harvest, a process that takes four years. Abalone is also available online; cleaned and pre-pulverized the shellfish retails at $75/pound.