It is no secret that Abalone restaurant in Dominick Street is one of my favourite restaurants, so I was very happy to accept an invitation from the chef proprietor, Alan Williams, to taste his first ever delivery of fresh abalone. What makes this fresh abalone really special is that it is 100 per cent Irish produced. It comes from Cape Clear, and if you are an avid watcher of RTE you may have seen a documentary showing how the owner Martin O’Mealoid was bringing his live abalone to the kitchens of two of the most famous eateries in London, The Dorchester and that coolest of cool sushi restaurant, Nobu.
So why is abalone such an expensive and hard to find creation? As a guide to price, think more about caviar rather than lobster prices. This was not always the case; back in the 1950s the California fishing industry was hauling in 2,000 metric tons a year. They were cheap and Californians simply dusted them with flour and quickly pan fried them. The coastal Californians would discuss the wonderful taste for hours as they devoured large amounts of that now hard to find mollusc. However, overfishing, a rising otter population, and rampant poaching meant that this business closed down in the late 1990s.
Many people around the globe have opened Abalone farms; in Japan, Hawaii, California, and Australia, with the aim of making easy money from growing this mega expensive mollusc. Unfortunately very few have succeeded as it is a very, very, labour intensive business. A red abalone will take 19 years to reach a seven inch marketable size, and not many people will get funding for that sort of return on investment. The green abalone that is being produced in Cape Clear takes about four years to reach the size of a small oyster — approximately three inches — and this is the type that Alan will be serving in his restaurant. Besides the labour input they are fed primarily a diet of seaweed called kelp and tons of seawater. Temperature is also critical and like oysters, they have to be delivered to the end customer while alive.
In my efforts to describe for you the taste of abalone and to demonstrate why it is so sought after I can only say that the flavour is unique — when eaten raw they are quite salty and when eaten cooked they have an utterly distinctive taste which lingers in your head for days, and at the back of your head is a voice saying ‘I want more’.
Abs, as devotees of eating abalone call them, are something that they have to have no matter what price and nothing else will do. Perhaps it is similar to the way people who love oysters simply have to get them, although I hasten to add that there is absolutely no comparison. They best way to find out more is to visit Abalone restaurant in Dominick Street and order either a starter or main course. They are going on the menu from this weekend. If you do treat yourself ask if you can have an abalone shell to bring home, they are absolutely exquisite and many forms of jewellery are made from them.