Abs of Steel
Chef Mark Ayers showcases Super Abs, locally raised red abalone.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Abalone was once gathered by the sack-full from Monterey’s intertidal waters. In the early 1900s, German immigrant “Pop” Ernest Doelter first sliced, pounded, and pan-fried abalone steaks at his Fisherman’s Wharf café, the dish later gaining widespread popularity at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco. Bert Cutino of Sardine Factory fame can speak of times when 20-cent abalone was cheaper than an order of peas, and 10 – to 14-inch abalone were so common that they were served to the staff.
Since those days of abundance, wild abalone have declined beneath the burden of man, resurgent otter populations and a changing environment, transforming the once ubiquitous mollusk into a luxury menu item. Consequently, many people have never sampled the sweet sensation of abalone, despite its top billing on the Seafood Watch Card.
Fortunately, advances in sustainable cultivation are bringing exciting red abalone dishes back to the table. The Monterey Abalone Company, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and Highlands Inn recently hosted a blind tasting between traditionally raised red abalone and the newly available Super-Abs. The results showed overwhelming support for the new abalone, with 64 percent favoring it, 17 percent stating no preference, and only 19 percent siding with the old style.
Highlands Inn Executive Chef Mark Ayers is showcasing the locally raised Super Abs during a special red abalone tasting series in February. Ayers features four presentations: thinly sliced abalone ceviche with endive and citrus “caviar,” traditional pan-fried with lemon and parsley, “steak and eggs” (abalone, lacquered bacon, onion, and sunny side quail egg), and my personal favorite, seared abalone with cauliflower purée and lobster butter ($15 per plate, wine pairing optional).
If you’ve never tried abalone or ventured beyond pan-fried, grab an ocean-view seat at the Highlands and taste why red abalone has long been a California coastal delicacy.