Uni Makes its Way into the Mainstream
by Mika Takeuchi
Although once constrained to the confines of Japanese cuisine, uni has become the “it” ingredient of contemporary dining, gracing the plates of restaurant goers dining in California, French and Italian-inspired restaurants. Chefs, from all walks of life just can’t seem to resist this foie gras of the sea and are incorporating it into traditional and progressive dishes alike. In recent years, we’ve witnessed sea urchin’s increasing prevalence on varying menus across the West; but now, with its current non-exclusivity to sushi bars, uni is officially swimming into the mainstream.
“Uni,” Japanese for sea urchin roe, is more specifically the gonads of the sea urchin and for many fans, it is considered an edible luxury, even to some, an aphrodisiac. In their origin, sea urchins are relatively small, spiny, sphere-shaped creatures that inhabit coral reefs and rocky ocean floors, mainly feeding on algae, seaweed and plankton. Each spiky sea urchin contains five rows of uni that are extremely fragile and require meticulous harvesting and handling. Although sea urchins can be found in waters across the world, the West Coast of the United States has become a popular uni-supplying mecca for both domestic and international clients.
Domestic uni dominates
Freshness is a key factor for the consumption of uni, and the emphasis on sourcing local resonates well with West Coast chefs. Those fortunate enough to reside particularly close to the Pacific Ocean, have it especially good. “We only serve locally-sourced and sustainable products, and uni is one of those prized ingredients” notes Executive Chef Chad White of San Diego’s Sea Rocket Bistro. “There is an abundance of sea urchin on the West Coast, especially here in San Diego, and I get mine direct off the boat daily. Rarely is there a shortage, unless the weather is bad and my fishermen can’t get out to the ocean,” adds White. His restaurant offers several uni-focused selections, including sea urchin pasta and a sea urchin shooter during happy hour which he claims, “creates quite the hysteria.”
Even closer to the sea urchin source is award-winning Seagrass Restaurant, just six blocks off the coast of Santa Barbara. Chef/Owner Robert Perez mentions the interest in sea urchin at Seagrass explaining, “We naturally use Santa Barbara red sea urchin being we are in Santa Barbara. We specialize in seafood, and there are guests who are looking for something different, with several requests and inquiries asking if we serve uni.” Recently named ZAGAT Survey’s number one restaurant in Santa Barbara, uni has officially found a place in fine dining kitchens of the West. Additionally, though, foreign countries such as Chile and Japan remain steady importers of sea urchin, Santa Barbara has clearly become a well-known uni capital, steadily becoming a favorite among chefs, both here in the U.S. and abroad.
Uni preparations and combinations
No longer reserved for sushi, sea urchin has found its way into dishes marked by a range of preparations. Seagrass’s Perez says he “enjoys pairing uni with shellfish, light and bright summer vegetables and some kind of acid, whether it’s yuzu, sudachi or lemon and lime”. His current uni dishes include caramelized sea scallops and Red Sea Urchin with wilted spinach and ginger emulsion; braised Niman Ranch pork belly with red sea urchin, baby carrots, sweet peas, wilted arugula and orange lime chili flake sauce; and a Maine lobster dish with sea urchin roe sauce, pommes puree, breakfast radish and English peas with a seaweed wafer.
At Raphael in Studio City, Chef Adam Horton has found success with his uni sauce preparation in a dish with diver scallops, white corn, black garlic, and tarragon. “My integration has gone well for me, I don’t serve it in an intimidating form, and it’s passed through a tamis and mixed with cream and butter. It seems more approachable that way,” says Horton. He plans on introducing guests to an uni panna cotta underneath a cold seafood dish, and believes that when it comes to pairing ingredients in his kitchen with uni, “It’s a really versatile ingredient, offering a clean, refreshing brininess to a dish.”
Over in Nevada at Las Vegas’ Palms Casino Resort, Executive Chef Geno Bernardo of Nove Italiano prefers domestic uni off the California coast and finds that “chefs are getting the product and feeling the creative passion for making great dishes with this amazing species.” He notes, “There are a lot of different types of applications that you can do with sea urchin. I think over the next few years, you are going to see uni on a lot of chefs’ menus. The main attribute is that you can use it in so many ways. The best way, I feel as a chef, is serving it raw with simple preparation. Let the uni speak for itself.” Chef Bernardo prefers pairing uni with “lardo, egg, caviar, and pasta.”
Growing uni-versal fan base
Chef Horton has been hearing “Oh, I love Uni!” a lot these days. When the subject is brought up, ninety-nine percent of the time, uni will evoke a passionate response from its advocates and naysayers. And despite its growing popularity, the creamy texture and acquired briny taste isn’t for everyone, but for uni zealots, there is nothing better.
Chef White has witnessed the rising adoration of uni at Sea Rocket Bistro and believes that it comes from diners’ curiosity with food, its visibility on television cooking shows and chefs educating their guests about the product. “An increasing number of diners are getting to know the chefs at their favorite restaurants, some even relinquishing their meal choices to kitchen teams, often taking guests on a culinary journey. Additionally, diners are beginning to pay more attention to what is being sourced and served locally and sea urchin is one of these ingredients. We source our sea urchin from a diver named Mitch. It doesn’t get more personal than that,” proclaims White.
Sea Rocket Bistro caters to both uni newbies and aficionados; Chef White concludes that “over 60 percent of diners who try uni return for more.” He believes, “People tend not to try things because they are afraid of what they don’t know. I think many people assume that, since they haven’t tried something, it must be gross, especially if it’s dark and spiny on the outside. As with the rest of our menu, we offer sea urchin options for both the adventurous and not-so-adventurous diner. For the die-hards, we have urchin served on a wood serving platter, live in its shell. As the spines of the shell move, diners indulge in its butter, sweet texture with a little lemon and lavender sea salt. Then, we have an uni shooter with ginger beer for those who want a quick dose. We also have a crostini served with a preserved lemon relish for those who are a little unsure about uni, and a light, handmade linguine with fresh urchin, ginger and nepitella for those looking to get spoiled.“
Chef Bernardo echoes the sentiments that uni is a product best received by diners when educated on the ingredient by the restaurant staff. “Most guests really don’t know or understand sea urchin. As chefs we have to train our staff to deliver the message to our guests. I have the best luck selling it verbally as a special that night, explaining to our guests that this great product just came in today. When we have uni that day, we sell it out each night,” states Bernardo.
Is sea urchin roe a go for your restaurant menu?
Despite it being a locally-sourced product, sea urchin is still considered very exotic to most diners and kitchen professionals. For innovative chefs, it has become a fascinating product they’ve delighted in experimenting with, but are still yet exploring. “I am just discovering applications for uni, but the product as an ingredient offers unlimited possibilities. I think the natural tie in to the Japanese kitchen leads chefs to work with uni. A lot of restaurant menus are incorporating Asian flairs and flavors, so it is a natural progression. Also, it is a different ingredient that has not been overdone so it gives chefs a chance to do something new and unique on their menus and offer multiple options for creativity using a product that is highly sustainable,” says Seagrass’s Chef Perez.
Nove Italiano’s Bernardo agrees saying, “The major benefit about serving uni is that you don’t see a lot of places serving uni other than sushi restaurants.”
As clearly proven by chefs who are already taking on this fresh, high-quality product, sea urchin just may be what your establishment needs to add some uni-queness to your restaurant’s current offerings.