Published on The Examiner 16 March 2017 – Click here to view the original article.
Ryan Sessions has been a chef in Port Fairy, the historic coastal town on the far west coast of Victoria, for more than 10 years, on and off.
Mostly on. Wherever Sessions has cooked, a briny wave of critical acclaim has usually followed, first at Portofino and then the Merrijig Inn.
“I’ve been a chef of the southwest coastal region for the past 20 years all up,” he says.
“I love living along the rugged, wild coastline with its fertile grazing hinterland. It’s where I call home.”
Increasingly, Sessions brings this reflection of place to the table of his latest venture, Fen, with his wife Kirstyn, along with a mature interest in native ingredients.
It just so happens that Fen is the third point on a trident of exceptional contemporary restaurants that share similar gastronomic inspiration to the west of Melbourne, including Igni at Geelong and Brae at Birregurra.
“This dish is a very regional Port Fairy, Tyrendarra, Lake Condah dish. It represents this little piece of Australia,” Sessions says.
The abalone is farmed by Yumbah Narrawong, near Portland; the eel is from Skipton producer Oss Eels; the shiitakes are grown commercially by Otways Shiitake; and the sea lettuce is gathered by the chefs.
“It tells a story of the coast and the land of this region,” Swessions says. “It’s a dish that is very regional and has a connection with the Aboriginal people of the land.”
“We use a technique where we shuck the abalone and let them tenderise overnight naturally,” says the chef, answering a common question about what to do with abalone.
“Through all my years of working with abalone, I’ve found this to be the best method; it relaxes the muscle and it doesn’t have to be brutally tenderised with a mallet.”
The eels are smoked over wood, not gas; the shiitake mushrooms are picked to order.
“The abalone comes in alive.” Of course. “After 24 hours of natural tenderising, we give it a quick massage and it loosens right up, ready for the pan. We turn the smoked eel into a warm eel brandade, whack that in the middle of the plate with a little seaweed and shiitake dressing.
“We add some roasted and pickled onions, then we de-stem and thinly slice the shiitake mushrooms — we use the stems in our shellfish consommes to beef the flavour up a bit.” The shiitakes are sauteed with a bit of wild rice, which goes on top of the eel. “Sear, then thinly slice the abalone over the shiitakes, season with roasted sea lettuce plucked from the ocean.”
“This is quite interesting for a seafood dish,” says Sessions, whose wine list reflects his modernist leanings. “We always try to pair it with a lightly styled red wine. Think: Henty Farm Pinot Meunier; Ochota Barrels Isabella; Domaine Simha Simla Red Field Blend. The abalone has a very savoury, umami flavour profile for seafood. With this and the mushrooms the overall flavour of the dish is quite rich, earthy and smoky. I like it.”
Abalone entree, $30