Crazy for Abalone

Red abalone is a locally raised ingredient that is inspiring chefs around the region. 

(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in October, 2017.)

Once so common in California that it could be collected at low tide, red abalone — the tastiest member of the species — is now a luxury ingredient not seen on many menus but beloved by those who have tried it. Rich, subtle, creamy, with a whisper of ocean, the meat of this giant sea snail is different from most other seafood. Deliciously so.

Abalone isn’t an inexpensive ingredient but, fortunately, it’s not nearly as dear as other rarities you’ll never find in the supermarket.  Say, Italian white truffles, which cost upward of $2,000 per pound, or a super-scarce black-skinned watermelon from Hokkaido, Japan, fetching about $200 each. In the seafood department, there’s Almas caviar from Iran, costing $1,250 per ounce and coming from an unusual albino species of sturgeon. By contrast, fresh abalone can be had for as low as $20 per serving.

This tiny locally grown abalone will need a few more years to reach harvest size.

The best news for South Bay abalone lovers is that this wonderful ingredient doesn’t have the extreme rarity in our area that is the case in most other parts of the nation. California’s wild populations have been banned from commercial harvesting for many years but red abalone is being farmed at two coastal aquaculture operations on Monterey Bay that not only supply restaurants and some retailers but also sell to the public. Those who want to leave the searching and cooking to others can find exquisite abalone dishes regularly or occasionally on the menus of a handful of chefs in the region.

Quite unlovely in its natural state, this tasty mollusk has long been considered a delicacy by Asians, who also believe it has supposed aphrodisiac qualities.  Sport divers are other big fans of abalone, even though the allowable catch keeps getting whittled down by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which now allows divers to pry out no more than 12 abs per diver annually.

Red abalone aren’t much to look at, being giant sea snails.

Its taste and scarcity coupled with ongoing demand and simple greed have given abalone a back story worthy of cinema treatments involving frequent accidental deaths, larceny and skulking government agents running sting operations.  While all of this is surely part of abalone lore, we won’t get into that quite yet because the first requirement of ab lovers is to know where they can consume this delicious gastropod.

One source is elegant Chez TJ in Mountain View, where chef Jarad Gallagher has put fresh abalone on his contemporary French menu as a regular item.  “It’s a very unusual product so that makes it exotic, which is consistent with my restaurant’s purpose,” he says. The fact that it’s a local sustainable ingredient and has such broad appeal among Asian and Caucasian customers and those guests who do sport diving all contributed to its selection for his menu.

”It has this cross-cultural, worldly feel to it,” he notes. “It’s one of those ingredients that a lot of people have an emotional connection to but that they don’t have very often so that makes it really, really cool for us to serve it.”  Gallagher thinks its natural sweetness pairs abalone well with items like corn, while it’s also quite compatible with rich ingredients such as bacon and pork belly.

Local abalone steaks ready for a frying pan.

His own unique take involves a quick sear on a Japanese grill burning binchō-tan charcoal, after which, “It’s so tender, you don’t need to cut it with a knife,” he says.  Gallagher also uses the abalone’s liver to create an umami-rich sauce for his preparations. The other ingredients he uses with his abalone treatments rotate along with the seasons.

Fellow South Bay chef YuMin Lin from The Sea in Palo Alto, which is part of the posh Alexander’s Steakhouse mini-chain, views abalone through the lens of his training in preparing Japanese and French cuisine.  “In Asia, abalone is considered a delicacy,” he explains.  “I prefer to eat it raw but in the U.S., people prefer it cooked.  The way I like to prepare it is to tenderize it by gently flattening before marinating it with a kelp broth for a day.  Then I put it into a light tempura batter and deep fry it. I like to pair it with edamame, seaweed butter and grilled king oyster mushrooms.”

Chef Scott Cooper of classy Le Papillon in San Jose has cooked all kinds of abalone — wild and farmed — and he prefers the smaller, locally grown gastropods. “For the kind of treatment we’re giving it, it’s definitely superior; delicious and wonderfully tender,” he says. That approach currently involves sautéing in brown butter and lemon, then pairing with slices of caramelized avocado.  “It’s a luxury item and somewhat subtle so we wouldn’t put a spicy curry on it or something,” notes the classically trained French chef.

The cover of David Kinch’s cookbook features an abalone shell. His kitchen buys its supply from Monterey Abalone Company.

Fellow chef David Kinch of Michelin three-star Manresa in Los Gatos is so fond of abalone that the cover of his cookbook pictures a stylized abalone shell.  The mollusk has appeared in some of his signature dishes such as Winter Tidal Pool and Kinch has said that farmed abalone is more tender than the wild variety — an opinion shared by many other experts.

All these local chefs get their abalone from the Monterey Abalone Company in Monterey or American Abalone Farms in Davenport near Santa Cruz. Both have been around for more than 20 years, which is impressive given the many California abalone aquaculture operations that have failed over the decades. Currently, there are just three domestic farms besides the two in our region: on the Central Coast in Cayucos, near Santa Barbara and on the island of Hawaii.

“A Winter Tidal Pool” is a signature dish featuring abalone at Manresa restaurant.

Closest to the South Bay is American Abalone, located on a scenic cove and increasingly popular with those who want to buy from the source.  Owned by marine biologist Tom Ebert, this aquaculture operation pumps circulating seawater from the adjacent Pacific into hundreds of tanks where abalone grow from pencil-point size to the three or four inches across that comprise optimal eating.

“People come here and see live abalone crawling around in the tanks or get an abalone steak that was  just processed yesterday,” notes Ebert.  He sells both as well as other fresh-from-the-water local seafood like live oysters, clams, Dungeness crab, sea urchins, filleted wild salmon and other items, now building an official store and dining spot overlooking the ocean that will open in the fall.

Tom Ebert, a marine biologist and owner of American Abalone Farms in Davenport.

For seafood lovers, a weekend trip to the coast to buy fresh abalone can be quite an enjoyable outing, with Ebert’s farm usually doing a brisk business as people pick up fresh abs and slurp down just-shucked oysters, clams and other treats.  Particularly attractive to abalone buyers is the fact that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program names California farmed abalone a “best choice” because it’s a healthy, sustainable pick.  “Some of our restaurant customers wouldn’t be  handling our seafood if it wasn’t rated a best choice,” Ebert says.

Luckily for abalone aquaculture operations like American Abalone and Monterey Abalone, the feed for their marine livestock is nearby and free, since the yummy mollusks eat a diet of algae. Both local farms send boats out into the surf several times a week to lop off the tops of the kelp that’s abundant for much of the year. “We go through about four or five tons of fresh kelp every week,” reports Trevor Fay, co-owner of Monterey Abalone.  “We harvest by hand from the canopy near the surface. It’s like cutting the grass out in the front yard; it’s going to come right back.” To keep his abs from drastic dieting during the periods when kelp is hard to find, his crew collects extra seaweed that’s salted to preserve it so it’s ready when the need arises.

Monterey Abalone operates under a pier and grows its red abalone in the waters of Monterey Bay.

Unlike American Abalone, Fay’s farm is submerged in Monterey Bay, located under a commercial wharf accessed via a trapdoor and tall ladder. Multiple wet planks laid between the pilings under the pier give access to 250 stacked metal mesh cages where about 4,000 abalone silently eat and slowly grow in the cool bay waters.  A system of ropes and pulleys is used to lift the cages out of the water frequently so more kelp can be stuffed in to feed the hungry abalone.

Monterey Abalone tries to duplicate the environment of wild abalone as much as possible while preventing natural predators like crabs, sea stars, octopuses, sea otters and other species from gobbling up their abs. The strong current that runs through the bay carries away waste from the farm, which then feeds other nearby ocean residents, according to Fay. “We’re about as much a farm-to-fork concept as it gets,” he says, selling live abalone to chefs, retailers and consumers, who then do the shucking and cleaning themselves.

Trevor Fay is co-owner of Monterey Abalone Company.

Stemming from ongoing research aimed at fine-tuning the farm, Monterey Abalone began growing hard-to-collect red algae to add to the brown kelp their critters munch on in order to “enhance flavor and appearance,” as Fay describes it. After high-end chefs began asking to purchase this seaweed, the farm started collecting and growing several kinds of algae, which it now sells along with seafood obtained through fisherman contacts: California spiny lobsters, Kellet’s whelks, sea cucumbers and giant red sea urchins.

While most ab lovers get their fix of the delicious mollusk through the efforts of the two local farms, diving for wild abalone is a passionate pastime for many Californians, whose coastline comprises the main historic habitat for haliotis rufescens, or red abalone. Despite the stringent regulations in place to protect the fragile wild population, diving for abalone is an activity that, alas, requires no experience and little equipment.  With scuba gear long outlawed, divers must hold their breath to look for the mollusks, primarily in the murky waters of Sonoma and Mendocino counties because catching abalone anywhere south of the Golden Gate Bridge is prohibited.

Red abalone habitat is down to 120 feet, so some snorkelers might be attracted to diving deeper than practical.  Add to that the risks of shark attacks, shallow water blackouts, riptides and underwater entanglements in kelp forests and it’s not surprising that seven or more lifeless bodies of abalone divers are pulled from the cold, restless water each year, often floating in small coves with an abandoned tube sometimes bobbing nearby. Yet the throngs still come, with abalone hunting not losing any fans despite the obvious dangers.

American Abalone Farms is on a scenic cove north of Santa Cruz.

These law-abiding citizens remove about 250,000 red abalone each year in California but they’re not the only ones hunting for the luscious gastropods. At least that many are stolen by poachers, experts say, with these greedy thieves prying out any variety of abalone — there are seven in total in our state — they can find despite how desperately endangered most of them are.

Attempting to block the flow of illegally hunted abalone, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife runs an undercover Special Operations Unit that looks for poachers and sets up sting operations after the mollusks have been pilfered.  Ab rustlers use outlawed scuba gear and sneak to quiet corners of the long California coastline to steal their prizes, with plenty of buyers equally unbothered by the effect of these crimes on the wild habitats. But watching for thieves are these game wardens — sometimes dressed in camouflage and hiding on bluffs or in trees while scanning the surf with binoculars — who are specially trained not just to find crooks but to potentially save the lives of snorkel-using, inexperienced licensed divers.

Snorkelers diving for abalone in Mendocino.

The wardens can set up checkpoints in prime abalone territory along the coast, examining each car for contraband.  Often, as cars approach the backup, filched abalone are seen being flung out the windows in desperate attempts to avoid detection.  Meanwhile, those criminals who have escaped the authorities sometimes get caught in stings run by the Special Operations Unit, which sets up fake buys and swarms the pilferers as they attempt to deliver the illegal goods.

Given the street value of abalone, thieves view the endangered creatures as $100 bills lying on the sea floor.  Insiders like Tom Ebert report seeing large, clearly bootleg wild abalone for sale in Chinatown markets, a distressing sight. “Given my background, that just turns my stomach,” he says. “To poach animals like that? That’s horrible. The poaching destroys everything.”

The first commercial harvesting of wild abalone in California took place in the mid-1800s and after scuba technology was invented, divers could collect 2,000 or more abalone daily.  Not surprisingly, this so decimated the fishery that it was finally closed in the ’90s. Today’s licensed sport divers cannot legally remove any red abalone less than seven inches in diameter, which means the mollusk could be 10 years old or more. Abalone can live up to 100 years and grow to more than 14 inches in diameter.

Divers measuring wild abalone to make sure they can legally be harvested.

The two local abalone aquaculture operations typically harvest abalone that are three and a half to four inches, which delivers optimal tenderness. The slow-growing nature of abalone — when farmed, they add about an inch per year — means that farmers must be patient.  Starting with a live abalone, the edible portion is 40 to 45% of its body weight, with four abalone producing four small steaks that make up a generous entree-sized portion of 5 to 8 ounces. The cost per portion from the local farms is $20 to $24.

The only crime when it comes to cooking abalone — even the tender young farmed variety — is to leave it on the heat too long. But that’s not a problem for skilled chefs like Scott Cooper of Le Papillon, who has long been enchanted by the flavor of this unusual sea snail. “It has a wonderful of-the-sea flavor,” he says.  “It doesn’t taste like scallops. It’s its own unique thing, which is why it’s interesting and good to cook with because there isn’t anything that tastes exactly like it.”

Pipes bring in seawater from the ocean so that adjacent American Abalone Farms has a constant supply to grow its crop.

>>>>>Buying Abalone Direct<<<<<<<

American Abalone Farms

245 Davenport Landing, Davenport

(831) 457-2700

Hours: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Products: live abalone and fresh steaks; fresh shellfish, wild salmon and other local products

Monterey Abalone (on the right) has a small office at the end of the commercial pier in Monterey, with its farm located below the pier and accessed through a trapdoor.

Monterey Abalone Company

160 Municipal Wharf No.2,  Monterey

(831) 646-0350

Hours: Mon. – Fri.., 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.; Sat.., 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Products: live abalone, California spiny lobster, whelks, sea cucumbers, red sea urchin and several kinds of local algae.

California spiny lobster is one of the seasonal delicacies available from Monterey Abalone Company.

>>>>>>Restaurants Serving Fresh Abalone<<<<<<< 

Chez TJ, 938 Villa St., Mountain View, (650) 964-7466;

The Sea by Alexander’s Steak House, 4269 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, (650) 213-1111;

Manresa, 320 Village Lane, Los Gatos, (408) 354-4330;

Nick’s Next Door, 11 College Ave., Los Gatos, (408) 402-5053;

Plumed Horse, 14555 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, (408) 867-4711;

Le Papillion, 410 Saratoga Ave., San Jose, (408) 296-3730;

TGI Sushi, 100 W. Hamilton Ave., Campbell, (408) 871-0123;

Doni Don BBQ, 3393 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, (408) 984-8005;

Firefish Grill, 25 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz, (831) 423-5200;

Home, 3101 N Main St., Soquel, (831) 431-6131;

Duarte’s Tavern, 202 Stage Rd., Pescadero, (650) 879-0464;

Navio (Ritz-Carlton), 1 Miramontes Point Rd., Half Moon Bay, (650) 712-7040;

 A simple pan frying after dredging the abalone in seasoned flour is the classic cooking approach suggested by Trevor Fay.  

Classic Abalone Recipe

Monterey Abalone Company’s Trevor Fay has consumed a lot of abs in his life but he sticks with a simple approach to preparation that shows off the subtle, rich taste of the meat.

Monterey-Style Abalone 

This recipe serves four people as a main course.

If using prepared abalone steaks, the quantity is four per person.  If using live abalone, one pound per person or three to five pounds total is the right quantity, which should yield about four steaks per person.  After shucking the abalone (many instructions are online), keep the meat in a bowl along with the juices that accumulate. Chill for at least an hour. Place steaks in a plastic bag and tenderize by delivering a few whacks with a wooden mallet over every part of the steak on both sides. Put the steaks back into the bowl with the saved juices.

Seasoned flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

lemon pepper

garlic powder

(optional) unseasoned bread crumbs

Put flour in a bowl and sprinkle just enough lemon pepper and garlic powder to create a film on top of the flour. Add bread crumbs if desired and mix well.  Other options are to add dry herbs and/or compatible spices.  Prepared steaks can be first dipped in a beaten egg, then dredged in the seasoned flour. If using live abalone, make sure the steaks are covered in the accumulated juices before dredging.

Put a generous amount of olive oil in a skillet and heat on high.  Flash fry the coated abalone steaks for 30 to 45 seconds per side.  Add more oil to the pan as needed if cooking several batches.

Serve hot with lemon wedges if desired.


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