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Robb Report Vices

Uni on the Rise

Troy Johnson

Uni has long been called the foie gras of the sea, a supple delicacy for advanced palates. At first glance, however, the sea urchin isn’t much to look at. The exterior is reminiscent of those spiky balls that medieval soldiers attached to a chain and used to bludgeon their neighbors. Once it’s cracked open, however, the prize is revealed. The cheddar-hued meat, which looks like a tongue, is actually the gonads. It is quiveringly soft and tastes like, well, a luscious seawater panna cotta. In the United States, the best uni comes from Southern California, specifically Santa Barbara and San Diego; but chefs from New York and Washington, D.C., are playing with the aquatic star as well.

Uni may be intimidating, but it’s the type of ingredient that separates the great chefs from the good ones. And if you’re looking for memorable uni dishes, you can’t go wrong with the following standouts.

Contrasting Techniques

Bruce and Eric Bromberg are brothers, chefs, and restaurateurs who use two of the sea’s fanciest tricks—uni and squid ink—to create a dish at their restaurant, Blue Ribbon Sushi Izakaya in New York, that is anything but an understatement. The dish, squid ink and uni fried rice, is defined by generous portions of both squid ink and sea urchin. “It was inspired by our trips to Spain, where we first tried squid-ink paella,” says Bruce. “Finishing it with uni lends a doubly fresh taste of the ocean. Plus the color and contrast is beautiful.”

Seduction by the Sea

At SoHo’s hip little pasta joint Charlie Bird, the James Beard Award nominee Ryan Hardy starts his duck-egg spaghetti by crisping guanciale in a pan, then tossing the pasta with lemon juice, scallions, and uni butter—made from sea urchin, butter, lemon juice, and salt. It’s all emulsified together and topped with fresh uni, rendered guanciale, and fresh black pepper. “Uni is an extraordinarily delicate and versatile taste of the ocean,” says Hardy. “With butter it becomes a seductive cream that we use to envelop those thin noodles. Not traditional by any means.”

Local Love

“They sell it at the farmers market here,” says Top Chef All-Stars winner Richard Blais of the sea urchin that he sources near his new venture, Juniper and Ivy in San Diego. “[That’s] as local as it gets.” From the confines of Juniper and Ivy’s kitchen in the city’s Little Italy, Blais makes linguine out of semolina and uni puree, then tosses it in a mixture of butter and more uni puree before adding clams and brioche.

A Flavorful Cure

Earlier this year, chef William Bradley (nominated by Thomas Keller) won Robb Report’s Culinary Masters Competition. Needless to say, if Thomas Keller approves, you should too. Bradley also plays with uni at his San Diego restaurant, Addison, which only makes us love him more. The chef cures hamachi in sake before adding restrained amounts of grapefruit, ginger, and sea urchin. “I love mixing uni and hamachi, because they play well off each other,” Bradley says. “The brininess of the uni brings out the sweetness of the hamachi.”

Eggs and Uni

Michael Cimarusti, executive chef at Providence in Los Angeles, serves his signature dish in an ornate Arpège egg cup. First he cuts off the top of an egg and slowly cooks the yolk with milk and butter. Then he warms Santa Barbara uni in a Champagne beurre blanc, accented with tarragon and tomato. To serve, Cimarusti combines all the mixtures in the cleaned-out shell and tops it with croutons. “I always thought this dish is a nice introduction to uni,” he says. “Presenting it in familiar form makes the strange look and taste more comforting.”

Final Bites

At Red Medicine, chef Jordan Kahn taps a forager to find the uni off the California coast. He lightly broils the tongues to tense them up a bit, then adds thin slices of raw Kei apple, frozen horseradish cream, almond curds, caramelized parsnips, and almond milk that he has transformed into thin, crisp shards. “The urchin almost melts into a saline crème anglaise when you eat it,” says Kahn. “Crème anglaise, frozen cream, almond milk, Kei apple—sounds like a good dessert to me.”

A Staple Dish

“We will probably serve this forever,” says Matt Adler, chef de cuisine at Osteria Morini in Washington, D.C., of a bucatini dish that was inspired by his time at New York City’s Marea. The house-made bucatini is covered in a sauce made up of garlic oil, Calabrian chile, tomato, shellfish stock, pomodoro sauce, butter, basil, crab, and uni, and it’s finished with a topping of seasoned bread crumbs. Buon appetito!