There are some uni meals that leave a lasting impression on a foodie’s soul. At EN Brasserie, I finally had my long awaited uni don experience (been looking to make and/or eat this dish since New Year’s). While I never have been able to make it at home, when I found out EN Brasserie had this on the menu, I tricked shwirtz into yet another uni adventure.
Uni Don - rice with a generous portion of Santa Barbara, CA sea urchin, mountain yam, mekabu and salmon roe ($29)
All I can say about the Uni Don here is WOW. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Urchin + roe (especially salmon roe) = good times, party in my mouth, no care in the world. The little pops of fishy liquid salt oozing and mixing with the creamy urchin is the bees knees. I could easily eat this once a week and need not eat another uni variation ever. AND, they were not kidding about the generous portion. There was A TON of uni and I think they could easily charge more than 30 bucks for this.
Uni roll of sweet shrimp, cucumber and shiso topped with Santa Barbara, CA sea urchin ($29)
For my first uni roll, this probably wasn’t a bad choice. The urchin was creamy and spot on and worked well with the crunch of the cucumber. The shiso was a welcoming bitter addition that balanced the richness. When it comes to the shrimp, I honestly would never have known it was there if it wasn’t on the menu. It had no taste and acted more like a filler to the roll. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed every piece but the shrimp was completely overpowered by uni and they could have just stuffed in anything.
Think you are a sea urchin expert? Press play and see how many of these sea urchin facts you know.
Our latest uni trek was at Dieci a Japanese/Italian restaurant featuring some unique uni dishes.
Here is what we ate, in order, from my least to most favorite:
Buffalo Mozzarella sea urchin and yuzu foam ($11)
I wanted to love this dish but it didn’t do it for me. The refreshing citrus infused foam was unique and added great flavor but the cheese just didn’t work and the dish didn’t need it. The texture of the cheese was harder than it should have been and the flavor overpowered the uni instead of letting it shine. A creamier mozzarella would have worked better. Despite all that, this dish was a good palate cleanser and made me excited for what was to come.
Potato Gratin marinated sea urchin ($8)
These piping hot little uni taters were pretty awesome. The buttery rich gratin and creamy uni were a perfect match. Even though they use little potatoes I still felt the potato-uni ration was weighted more towards the potato. When I recreate this at home, I will scoop out the potato just a little bit so there’s a better balance. Other than that, my advice would be to wait a minute or two before diving in. Be forewarned. You will burn your mouth off.
Fettucine uni cream sauce & calamari ($22)
The staff was awesome and split the portion without us asking. That’s always a nice touch in my book. This is the pasta dish I would eat once a week. The pasta texture was right on, the calamari succulent and perfectly cooked and those chives didn’t just add a touch of color but also a delicate brightness. The only challenge I had was portioning my uni pieces so that I would have some uni with every bite. I’d gladly pay double for double the uni - the dish is that good.
Ever wondered why sea urchin seems to be popping up on nearly every fancy restaurant’s menu these days? The answer may not be what you think.
Thanks to advancements in cooling as well as the use of aircraft, uni from Hokkaido can be shipped anywhere in the world. Any chef/restaurant can get their hands on what used to be a Japanese delicacy if they are willing to pay for it. Demand is so high for sea urchins that as recently as June, 300 grams of top-quality urchins (10 ounces - a can of soda is 12 ounces) from Hadate Suisan Corp. were auctioned at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo for about $400(!).
The high cost isn’t just a result of increasing demand and shipping costs but also because of the surprising amount of painstaking manpower that goes into making every box beautiful.
Japanese cuisine puts an extraordinary emphasis on the appearance of food and sea urchin is an extremely delicate and temperamental creature. Any rough handling of the urchin can cause stress to the animal, which in turn affects the quality of its roe. It is for that reason that workers at Hadate Suisan Corp. treat sea urchin with the greatest of care. Not only do employees do their best to maintain the integrity of each piece of roe, and then sort them by color, they also carefully place the roe piece by piece into beautifully arranged, double-layered cardboard boxes.
Left side: Sea urchins being placed in wooden trays in Hokkaido, Japan. Picture by Eiji Hori. Right side: Sea urchin tray at Neta in NYC. Picture by yours truly.
All I can say is - raw sea urchin? raw meat? AND beautifully presented on a wooden plank? Yes, please.
Niku-uni = 4 umami flavor bombs delivered in a uniquely-flavored crunchy vessel.
The four stacks of raw bliss were composed of Santa Barbara uni, chuck flap, shiso leaf and seaweed. The raw meat and uni combo greeted my tastebuds as perfectly refreshing little bites. It’s hard to imagine something so salty & savory also tasting so fresh and cool. Well worth the $26.
Not only does uni taste great, it has some real health benefits.
It’s a good source of all of the below:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin A
Sea Urchin is also low in fat (each ounce has about 1 gram of fat) and low in calories (34 calories per ounce — lower than the more popular sushi items of tuna or mackerel)
Sea Urchin has also long been used as an aphrodisiac in many cultures such as Japan and those around the Mediterranean.
Santa Barbara Uni with warm silken tofu ($18)
i don’t think there is a better match in life than urchin and roe. For me, this paring was the only thing that kept me interested in this dish. I’m a huge fan of tofu but I didn’t feel like it added anything here. The texture was too similar to that of the urchin’s that both sort of got lost.
If you know me, you know that I think everything tastes better with a little egg on it. Is there anything that a raw quail egg or a dollop of roe won’t make better? OK, probably a few things but not many.
I went to Sakamai for their Egg on Egg on Egg ($18) and it blew my mind. Nestled on a bed of scrambled eggs, sat mouthwatering pieces of sea urchin hugged against a spoon of sturgeon caviar. The moist ingredients glistened from the rustic urchin shell. It begged for me to pick up my spoon. When I did, and got all pieces of the umami threesome in my mouth I felt like royalty.
Each decadent and sinful bite makes you feel like you want to eat one of these every night and maybe go for another round in the morning.
A lesson in symbiosis from The Octonauts — why crabs and sea urchins need each other — one for food, the other for protection.
Jump to minute 4:35
I checked the Noma menu repeatedly a few days before our flight and saw “sea urchin and duck skin” slated for one of the courses. I could only hope that when we got there for dinner, on February 15, the menu hadn’t changed.
Luckily, it didn’t. Our incredible server Kat of Big Food Small World, confirmed urchin was still on the menu shortly into the meal. (Kat – that lucky girl spent 4 years in Hokkaido (!!!) and also appreciates her urchin)
As you would expect this urchin course was one of my favorites and here is why.
Sandwiched between a bed of crunchy toast and a crispy duck fat chip laid a pillow of creamy briny goodness. The texture of the components in this dish separated it from all urchin dishes that I had before. Sure the Faroe Island urchin was exquisite but the uniqueness of the dish was in the dance between creaminess and crunchiness.
The sea urchin exploration only got better as the already incredible meal came to an end and we were invited to tour the kitchen.
The staff was still buzzing (chefs were getting ready for their Saturday Night Projects) when the amazing chef Nate escorted us to the first of several active kitchens. One of the dishes we were lucky enough to see “back stage” was the duck skin sheets from the urchin dish chilling on a prep counter.
The pinnacle of my Noma dinner came when our group got to meet and speak with René Redzepi in the Noma test kitchen. Kat introduced our group and mentioned to René that I had a sea urchin blog. When he asked me if I liked sea urchin, I had to correct him, “Like?! I love it.” To which he replied, “Really?”
That’s when I entered into a culinary euphoria that would last several hours after we left. I thought to myself: How am I having a conversation about urchin with René Redzepi??” Rene went on to explain to us that his urchin is handpicked from a guy in the Faroe Islands*. He spoke more about how in many places the urchin come on trays and they are treated with lye. I can officially die now.
Lars Williams – head of R&D (who presented a few of the noma courses at our table) was also there. He added that urchins are really sensitive and need to be handled with the greatest of care or they get agitated. I trust in their hands the urchin are handled with great care.
Some more thoughts on Noma:
(I do this reluctantly since I’m not looking to make this site about reviewing restaurants but I was so moved on so many levels by Noma that I have to.)
Beyond being fortunate enough to eat the most innovative, mostly foraged vegetarian centric meals in the world, the entire experience was unforgettable. From the time we walked in, we were greeted warmly by an unusual number of the staff. Most dishes came out of the kitchen accompanied by a Noma chef who explained its ingredients and preparation and took the time to answer follow-up questions. We were lucky enough to be one of few tables asked to tour the kitchens, private event space and herb garden and meet and chat with Rene Redzepi for close to an hour.
This dining experience far exceeded anything I expected. Noma is special in every sense of the world. The food was like nothing I’d ever had before – memorable and special. But, it would just be another great dinner if not without the knowledgeable, passionate (and good looking) staff that we met at every encounter and the warm, inclusive atmosphere. In my experience there has been a direct relation between the number of Michelin stars a restaurant has and how uptight and uncomfortable the vibe. Noma is just the opposite and gives me hope that other top restaurants of the world will follow noma’s lead.
*Roderick Sloan is noma’s sea urchin guy and owner of Arctic Caviar Company. Chances are if you’ve eaten urchin at the world’s top restaurants, that urchin was handpicked by Sloan. Headquartered in Leinesfjord, Norway, Arctic Caviar Company is just starting to offer specialized tours for the urchin enthusiast but it will be a trek. Obviously I’ve already looked into it.
Here’s the mouth watering description from laist:
"It’s made by sous vide cooking some Santa Barbara sea urchin, then pureeing it and mixing it with a cumin simple syrup, muddled roasted nori, lemon juice, and tequila. It’s served over a big cube in a rocks glass rimmed with applewood smoked salt, then garnished with more nori and some sweetened sesame."
I know where I’m staying and drinking the next time I’m out west.
While enjoying a little surprise staycation in Soho (during one of the coldest weekends in NYC), my hubs took me out for cozy dinner at The Dutch. In typically fashion, we flooded our table with several appetizers.
First up came this little sea urchin ditty ($12) served on ice. I carefully portioned my spoon so each velvety bite would include some uni balanced with a pop of vinegar mushroom and nondescript pillowy foam. It was difficult to master since the sea urchin pieces were on the small side and there was a lot of foam. I’m not saying that this foam was not good, the texture was a great compliment to the uni. It was just unmemorable and difficult to identify. I guess my biggest issue was the uni to foam ratio. I think the dish would have worked better if there was more uni or far less foam. Would also not have minded a hotter pepper — the espelette is only a 4,000 on the Scoville scale.
Got my uni fix this week at 15 East.
I started out with an appetizer of Uni Ankimo - steamed monkfish liver, sea urchin and ponzu sauce ($18). Besides loving uni, I’m a fan of all roe as well as liver - all kinds. When I saw this app combining two of my favorite things, I knew I had to try it. This dish was chilled and refreshing but sadly I didn’t really taste the uni. The ponzued liver was overpowering the delicate uni and the truth is there really wasn’t much uni at all.
My main sushi course did fair better. I had several sushi pieces and also ordered up a mini uni tasting which I saved for my last two bites: 1 piece of Hokkaido uni ($12) and 1 piece of Santa Barbara uni ($8). I thought it would be fun to taste two different types of uni back to back and see if there really was any difference in taste. I went for the Californian first and then for the Japanese. I found the taste of both to be sweet and buttery however the Japanese uni was firmer compared to the softer, creamier California uni. While I do not know which of the half a dozen varieties of Japanese sea urchin I tried, I suspect the Californian was Premium grade* due to the softness. To be honest — I think I enjoyed the Santa Barbara uni better.
*my opinion only!
PS — all about Uni Grades:
California Gold: Bright yellow/orange, firm texture (formerly A-Grade)
California Premium: Mild yellow color, softer pieces (formerly B-Grade)
Vana: Dark color, melting soft, also known as Vana (formerly C-Grade)
Gold and premium grades of uni are always fresh. Vana is usually frozen unless it’s requested to be fresh. All grades of uni can be eaten raw.
Photo courtesy of the official tourism site of Pompeii
A new study provides evidence that some inhabitants of Pompeii dined on all types of delicacies — including sea urchin!
Steven Ellis and his team spent nearly a decade excavating and analyzing charred food waste left in ancient cesspits and latrines behind food stalls. This finding is actually quite interesting as it’s been commonly believed that the masses basically scrounged for their every meal and that only the elites had access to upscale, imported foods.