Lobster may be the epitome of fine dining in most restaurants, but ounce for ounce it can’t touch the grandeur of abalone.
At Oceans restaurant in Cathedral City, both epicurean delights run $40 (4.5 ounces abalone vs. 14-16 ounces lobster). But consider this: Fishing for abalone in the wild is extremely limited (breath-hold diving only, other restrictions apply). Fortunately for epicureans, The Abalone Farm in Cayucos raises the gastropods from spawning to market size, which takes four to six years. Bakir Rizvanbegovic, owner/chef of Oceans, orders 5 pounds of abalone from the farm every seven to 10 days.
“People have come here specifically for abalone for many, many years,” says Rizvanbegovic, who started putting abalone on his menu 15 years ago. “Some nights, 60 percent of diners order abalone.”
This year’s offering is abalone piccata (dipped in seasoned flour; brushed with an egg wash, sautéed; and served with fresh lemon, olive oil, and capers. For lunch, the abalone is served with angel hair pasta, fresh tomato, basil, and garlic ($24.95, two abalone) and for dinner with mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables ($39.95, three abalone).
When there’s fresh abalone left after a Saturday night, Rizvanbegovic takes it home for Sunday breakfast — pan seared with fresh lemon (“You don’t want to kill the delicate flavor with a heavy sauce,” he says, recommending a light touch with lemon or lime and olive oil).
The Abalone Farm also supplies Jensen’s Finest Foods for home chefs out to indulge and/or impress — frozen, $8 each (1 to 2 ounces).
Abalone holds an advantage over lobster beyond the dining room. The iridescent shells are used for decorative purposes and made into jewelry. Rizvanbegovic uses them to serve sauces with other dishes on his menu.
To Market, To Market
Turning the “beauty is only skin deep” theory upside down, a living abalone could nicely illustrate the word “ugly” in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary — but peel the gastropod from its shell, and you’ll find mother of pearl worthy of a master jeweler’s attention.
That’s not all the slimy mollusk has to offer those who appreciate the finer things in life. Abalone meat makes a premium dish served at fine-dining restaurants on and near the Pacific Coast. Diving for wild abalone is highly restricted, due to its depletion in the wild (thanks in large part to the cute-but-voracious sea otter), so restaurants and home gourmands must rely on commercial abalone producers.
The Abalone Farm in Cayucos maintains an inventory of about 4 million red abalone in various stages: from dot-sized, just-spawned babies to man hand-sized 6+ year olds. It takes these marine snails four to six years to reach market size (3 1/2 to 5 inches), says the operation’s sales manager, Brad Buckley. About a million a year go to market. Those that don’t become spawners.
The oceanfront farm pumps seawater through oxygenated growing tanks. “A lot of farm-raised abalone grow in indoor tanks to keep the shells pretty,” Buckley says. “We choose to grow them outside because this is a tide-pool environment.”
They eat naturally forming algae, but the farm supplements their diet with seaweed harvested just offshore (babies get “seaweed smoothies”). In contrast with the slow-growing abalone, the kelp grows one inch an hour. Nevertheless, harvesting is regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game. “We pay for what we harvest,” says Buckley, who also touts the nutrient benefit and flavor of Pacific dulse for human consumption. “Pan roasted, it has the taste of bacon,” he says.
Abalone are prolific breeders. A newly mature abalone typically produces a few hundred thousand eggs (older females can release millions of eggs). Males do them one better, releasing billions of sperm, which means The Abalone Farm only needs a few males for fertilization. From tens of millions of fertilized eggs, only 2 to 2.5 million survive (survival rates are low in the wild as well) and are transferred to the farm’s “nursery,” where they spend the first 10 months of their lives. Once they reach fingernail size, they are transferred to baskets in tanks they call home until 18 months to 2 years of age (at which time they are moved to the grow-out tanks).
According to Bradley, The Abalone Farm’s biggest customer is in New York and most of the product stays in the United States, whereas it used to go primarily to Japan and some to China. “What changed is people’s awareness through the popularity of Top Chef shows,” he says. “Now people are a lot more adventurous in dining.”