Abalone, Sand Dabs and Spot Prawns Set California Seafood Apart

Angela Almeida

From spot prawns to sand dabs, indigenous seafood sets California apart.

That’s why Niki Nakayama of N/Naka in Los Angeles sources much of her seafood locally for her tasting menu. She mostly works with fresh catches found only miles away, like black cod, for which she employs the sustainable ike-jime technique to ready the fish for sashimi. “With ike-jime, the spine [of the black cod] is hit quickly, and it bleeds out,” she says. “The breakdown process is slowed, and it’s more gentle for the fish.”

But when it comes to accentuating one of California’s most-prized catches, Nakayama cites her abalone pasta. The abalone, which typically hails from the waters of Santa Barbara or Monterey Bay, tenderizes in a water bath. To Nakayama, it’s the ultimate portrayal of California-inspired kaiseki—one that relies on the abalone’s texture over its flavor.

“With kaiseki, it’s about showcasing what’s local,” she adds. “We’re surrounded by California waters, and we should represent that when we can.”

Farther up the coast, Parke Ulrich flaunts the wonders of Dungeness crab on the menu of San Francisco’s Waterbar. When in season, the crab is caught and par-cooked before being cleaned, cracked and cooked in a wood oven. “You can use it in consommés and soups, and other creative ways,” he says.

Another dish features Half Moon Bay sand dabs—flat, small fish Ulrich stuffs with shrimp. “Sand dabs have a lot of bones, so the preparation is time consuming, but it’s worth it,” he says.

When sourcing from California waters, creativity is key for Michael Cimarusti, co-owner/chef of Providence in Los Angeles. After the restaurant became the first West Coast establishment to participate in the Dock to Dish program, which supplies seafood caught by small-scale fishermen, he made a point of highlighting lesser-known seafood. One plate, referred to as “The Ugly Bunch,” incorporates a changing array of abalone, sea urchin and raw Santa Barbara spot prawns over smoked crème fraîche panna cotta. “We don’t know what’s coming in until the night before,” he says. “So we have to be adaptable.”