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Key Ingredient: Abalone 

The Butcher & Larder's Rob Levitt steams up sea snails

The Chef: Rob Levitt (The Butcher & Larder)

The challenger: Mark Mendez (Uva)

The ingredient: Abalone

Rob Levitt poked at an abalone sitting on the counter of his butcher shop. "It's pretty dormant," he said. "It might still have a little kick left in it. When I got 'em, they were going nuts."

click to enlarge JULIA THIEL

That was just the day before, so the mollusk was still pretty fresh. Levitt had searched the Asian markets in and around Chicago and checked with two fish companies before finally finding abalone through a third fish purveyor. Some species are now endangered, but farmed abalone is generally sustainable—if not always easy to find.

Levitt had never worked with abalone before, but he'd tasted it earlier this year at a restaurant in New York, where it was thinly sliced and paired with shaved beef tendon as an antipasti course. "It's not a strong flavor," Levitt says. "It's more of a texture, and it has this very light, pleasant sea flavor. . . . The texture, when it's sliced thin, is like calamari. Almost like overcooked calamari—it's got that chewiness to it—but it's a lot more pleasant than overcooked calamari."

He considered making sausage with it, but didn't think the flavor was strong enough to stand up in one. "It's not a really strong, obvious flavor; it's the texture that makes it all happen," he said. Ground up or chopped, the abalone would lose that.

In the end, he made bruschetta with bone marrow, inspired by the meal he had with abalone in New York. "I figure the beef tendon was so good, and in the same dinner I also had sea urchin with lardo, so unusual sea creatures and delicious fats seemed like a natural choice." He mixed the bone marrow with lemon zest, marjoram, sea salt, and the "guts" of the abalone. "When you shuck them, there's a little bit of goo at the bottom, and it's more or less like their guts, but it's mostly bits of seaweed, which is what they eat."

Levitt marinated the abalone in beer with chiles, garlic, and marjoram before steaming it in the marinade and slicing it thinly. It went into a salad with Anaheim chiles, radish, fennel, and parsley. He spread the bone marrow mixture on grilled bread and put it in the oven for a few minutes to melt it before topping the bread with the abalone salad. "You get a little hot, a little cold, a little land, a little sea, animal, vegetable—we can put the shell on for some mineral," he joked.

The dish overall was good, Levitt said, but he didn't taste the abalone quite as much as he would have liked to. "You definitely taste the bone marrow; you definitely taste the marinade and the chiles and the lemon and all that stuff. And you get a little bit of the texture from the abalone," he said. "As a dish it's really tasty. I would eat it. I just did."

Who's Next:

Jason Vincent of Nightwood, working with duck tongues. Levitt said he couldn't come up with anything that Vincent would be afraid of working with, so he decided to go with the oddest thing he could think of. "I'm going to encourage and challenge him to call up our duck farmer and see if we can get a bunch of duck heads and actually cut the tongues out of the beaks. Because if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right. I had to cut abalone out of the shell."


Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Abalone and Bone Marrow Bruschetta

Abalone

Remove abalone from shell (reserve the goo left in the shell) and marinate about two hours in:

5 thin slices fresh, hot chile

1 clove garlic, thinly sliced

1 T marjoram leaves

¼ cup beer (nothing dark)

Steam abalone for six minutes and cool. Once cooled, trim off all the weird-looking black stuff around the edges. Slice as thinly as possible.

Bone Marrow

Allow one femur's worth of marrow to soften to room temperature. Add the reserved abalone goo, one teaspoon lemon zest, one teaspoon gently chopped marjoram leaves, and a good pinch of sea salt and pepper. Mix well.

Vinaigrette: Finely chop one tablespoon of the marinade leftovers and add three tablespoons lemon juice and a quarter cup olive oil. Mix well and reserve.

Toast a piece of crusty bread and smear with some of the marrow mixture. Pop in the oven for two minutes or so—just until the marrow gets bubbly. Mix the abalone with one tablespoon parsley leaves, some thinly sliced radish, chile and fennel and a pinch of sea salt. Dress with some of the reserved vinaigrette. Place the abalone mixture on top of the hot marrow toast.

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