Corey Costelloe is a happy chef. For the first time in more than 12 months, he can list black-lip abalone on the menu at Rockpool Bar & Grill.
"It's the most delicious seafood, and we've served it at the restaurant for the past 10 years," says the executive chef of the hatted CBD steakhouse. "But with lockdowns and COVID affecting supply, and one of our tanks needing to be fixed, it's been a minute since we could offer it."
Black-lip abalone are a striking, almost alien-like mollusc endemic to Australia and found in waters from mid-NSW, down to Tasmania and across the southern coastline.
Prized at luxe Chinese restaurants for decades for its buttery, delicate taste, and shared by Indigenous communities for millennia, the shellfish is slowly but surely becoming more popular in Sydney fine-diners.
"It hasn't always been that common because a restaurant really needs live seafood tanks to serve wild-caught abalone," says Jordan Toft, executive chef of Mimi's at Coogee Pavilion and Bert's in Newport. "They're quite fragile and I think best eaten fresh."
Toft uses Red Claw Seafood suppliers to source live black-lip for Mimi's, where abalone is served in its shell after being grilled, sliced and enriched with XO sauce. At Bert's, the mollusc is grilled and tossed with stir-fried shiitake mushrooms, and bolstered with a butter sauce made from its liver.
"The liver is a really flavourful part of the abalone," he says. "Occasionally we'll get in green-lip abalone from the southern states, which is slightly bigger and can be more tender, but it's always nice to showcase beautiful seafood from the NSW coast."
Black-lip abalone arguably has more flavour than green-lip too, especially when braised. "At Rockpool, we'll sometimes cook it in Chinese masterstock at 70 degrees for 45 minutes, and it's incredible," says Costelloe.
Ryan Morris from Atssu Divers on the south coast has directly supplied Costelloe with live NSW black-lip since 2011, as well as Neil Perry before the chef retired from Rockpool Dining Group last year.
"I emailed Neil to see if he would be interested in buying abalone directly from the diver, and he called me back within 40 minutes," says Morris.
"I started supplying Peter Gilmore at Quay 12 months later, and then Martin Benn at Sepia before he left Sydney. Although I've recently been speaking to Martin about putting NSW abalone on the menu at his new restaurant in Melbourne."
Morris has grown his business to also sell lobster for NSW fishers and employ eight other abalone divers. About 70 per cent of Atssu's abalone is exported to China, Japan, Singapore and other Asian markets.
"We had to increase our exports when COVID hit because of restaurant lockdown in Australia," he says. "At the moment, Rockpool is the only restaurant I'm supplying to direct. It's taken a bit of time to get things up and running again after the pandemic."
Black-lip abalone can grow to 21 centimetres and like to inhabit waters between five and 10 metres in depth, but can be found much deeper. The marine snail is also fond of hiding under rocks and kelp, preferring "to come out more" in the colder months, says Morris.
"Our diving is also governed by the weather. Summer months are the worst diving conditions, and winter is best. I basically work around Tathra, Merimbula and Eden for most of the year, and as far as Port Macquarie in winter when the water is colder and the wind conditions are optimal."
There are currently 35 shareholders in the NSW Abalone Fishery eligible to dive for commercial purposes. The total catch quota for the 2020-2021 season is 100 tonnes (Morris' abalone weigh around 350 grams each), however illegal poaching is a major threat to the species and industry.
A government report in 2019 found illegal unreported catches of abalone were estimated to be around 20 tonnes per year, however Morris believes it could be as high as 60 tonnes.
"There are always people poaching up and down the coast," he says. "It's a real problem and has been for a long time. The Department of Primary Industries compliance team does a great job trying to eliminate these poachers, but it may take a year for a magistrate to prosecute them. In the meantime, they just go and poach again."
Given the literal lengths divers go to, legally-caught NSW abalone isn't cheap. At Sydney Fish Markets, Harris supplies Nicholas Seafoods, Peter's and Claudios, where live black-lips retail for $40 each.
Back at Rockpool, Costelloe is busy perfecting a $110 wood-fire grilled abalone special, shiny with butter enhanced by seaweed, capers, scallops and house-smoked oysters. Guests can also enjoy a smaller serve of abalone shaved over roasted coral trout wings with oyster mushrooms and garlic butter for $39.
Meanwhile, Golden Century on Sussex Street is also terrific for abalone thinly sliced in a steam boat, says the chef. "Or you can just buy your own. Shuck it, tenderise it, and slice the meat super thin. Put a slice on your fork, cook for 10 seconds on a cheap outdoor grill and eat immediately. I can stand around for hours doing that."