The allure of uni

Innovative chefs are transforming the way you eat the coveted sea urchin.

Caviar and oysters once had a stranglehold on romantic fare. These days, when we look for our fix for an ocean delicacy, our thoughts turn to sea urchin. For decades, it appeared most often on sushi menus, but is now being incorporated into all sorts of cuisines (including atop avocado toast—a collision of trends). On the supply-side, it's becoming more widely available, which is part of its proliferation, but the more important reason behind uni-mania its singular taste. New York Times food critic Frank Bruni described its “haunting flavor—briny nuances, sweet undercurrents, an overarching richness—of this inimitable grainy custard.”

Which isn't to say that everyone is batty for it. "It's sort of like cilantro––you either love it or hate it," says Tim Cushman, chef-owner of O Ya, the renowned sushi destination tucked away in Boston's Leather District with a second location in New York. For those who love it, they may love it: Sea urchin is purported by some to have an aphrodisiac quality. "Uni is exotic, and considered very special and unique," Cushman says. (He describes uni's flavor profile as "deep ocean funk.") Cushman prepares it in several different ways, including smoking it in cedar and placing it atop nori butter-spread toast points. He's also created a steak dish with Chef Daniel Boulud that pairs dry-aged beef with sea urchin butter and tarragon oil.

Across town from O Ya is the restaurant Uni. Award-winning Chef Ken Oringer's ode to the urchin opened 15 years ago, before people understood that what they were craving was umami. "It has this oceanic quality to it, creaminess, richness," he says. "It's not as briny as a clam or oyster and has just the right amount of texture." At Oringer's other restaurant Toro, the uni bocadillo is a best-seller: uni, pickled mustard and miso butter are pressed between two pieces of Spanish bread.

So if your weekend plans aren't firmed up and you're feeling a little adventuresome, let us recommend spicing things up with some uni. It's a natural with pasta (such as the bucatini with smoked uni and breadcrumbs at New York's All'Onda), pairs well with avocado (such as a dish called the Bomb.com, a guacamole bedecked with Santa Barbara sea urchin at Petty Cash in LA) and when fresh uni straight from the shell is available the next time you're at a good sushi spot, taste it in its purest form. One important note: Caviar has vodka, oysters have Champagne, and as for uni, choose a daiginjo sake, says Cushman's wife Nancy, who's also the restaurant's sommelier (that or a beer, Tim adds).