Uni seems like an awfully unlikely ingredient to trend hard, but lord knows it is indeed trendy, and has been for some time now. If we died tomorrow, it certainly would be center stage in our last meal. (We can’t get enough!) Just what is that gloriously briny shellfish? The Japanese name for the edible part of the spiny sea urchin (i.e., the gonads, believe it or not), bright orange uni have an intensely creamy consistency and a sweet and briny flavor; essentially, they taste like the distilled essence of the ocean. But since they’re relatively seasonal — best when served from fall through winter — highly delicate, and difficult to harvest (they’re hand-picked by divers off of coasts, and there are only five lobes to each creature), uni is considered a delicacy throughout much of the world, resulting in some seriously sky-high prices. We’re talking up to $450 a pound in Asia!
While uni has long been a staple shellfish in Japan, frequently used in top-grade sushi and sashimi, as well as the Mediterranean, served raw and accompanied by little more than a squirt of lemon, the U.S. has become one of the largest purveyors of uni in recent years. Particularly Santa Barbara — where the plump and floral roe is referred to as California gold — and Maine, where they’re smaller in size, but with a sharper, more pronounced ocean taste. Which means, United States-sourced uni has become a prized menu addition at restaurants all over New York, specializing in a wide range of cuisines, from New American to Italian to Spanish and more.
Take Stephen Starr and Justin Smillie’s Cali-inspired Upland, where sea urchin (the Maine kind, surprisingly), forms a succulent sauce for Chilled Farro Spaghetti, finished with a sprinkle of chopped scallions and toasted sesame seeds. And at Donatella Arpaia’s just-launched, high-end pizzeria, Prova, uni can be ordered as an uber-luxe topping for wood-fired Pizza, along with pecorino sardo and Sicilian EVOO. The hotter-than-hot Queens newcomer, Mu Ramen, may be drawing raves for their noodle bowls, but you won’t want to miss chef Joshua Smookler’s inventive appetizers. Seafood lovers will go weak in the knees over the cheekily named “U&I,” a scoop of rice topped with spicy tuna, salmon roe, and of course, melting pods of uni.
If you really want to go for broke at Brooklyn’s Extra Fancy, you’ll order a tray of their upgraded raw Oysters or Clams, crowned with fat lobes of sea urchin (while it’s not currently on the menu, hope for the reappearance of their warm, housemade bread as well, served with melting pats of insanely unctuous uni butter). And Alex Raij’s Spanish tapas spot, El Quinto Pino, has a thing for uni as well, incorporating saline layers of sea urchin, butter and bracing Korean mustard oil into griddled sandwiches known as Bocadillos.
But perhaps the best showcase for uni in New York right now can be found at the West Village izakaya, Saikai (run by former Masa chefs), where they’re currently offering an all-sea urchin tasting menu. For $70, you’ll enjoy six courses paired with California wines, including White Asparagus cloaked in uni dressing, Miso Smoked Uni Sashimi, Jumbo Wild Shrimp with uni sauce, Uni Udon Pasta with grilled uni, uni salt, and uni butter, Miyazaki Beef topped with uni, and Uni and Bay Scallops au Gratin.
If you’re a confirmed uni obsessive like us, you’ll agree that it sounds like a little slice of heaven on earth.
345 Park Ave S., at 26th St.
184 8th Ave., btwn. 19th & 20th Sts.
12-09 Jackson Ave., btwn. 47th Rd & 48th Ave.
302 Metropolitan Ave., btwn. Driggs Ave & Roebling St.
El Quinto Pino
401 W 24th St., btwn. 9th & 10th Aves.
Saikai Dining Bar
24 Greenwich Ave., btwn. Charles St & 10th Sts.