Uni Is the New Foie Gras

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I’m an equal opportunity eater. I’ve been known to take down duck hearts, shredded pig ears, and even lamb testicles.

Needless to say, I definitely enjoyed foie gras before The Law got involved. But I’ve been keeping an eye out for the next luxe food du jour, the decadent replacement for us San Franciscans with a penchant for animal parts.

I’ve heard talk of truffles popping up in pastas, in cheese, and in oil form. There’s also the ubiquitous bacon, which really is everywhere. But for a real foie alternative that evokes the creamy, rich, oh-my-god-I-want-to-eat-bowls-of-this-eye-rolling ecstasy, the answer can be found just off the Northern California coast.

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Also known as uni, those spiky creatures with the silken innards are the new foie gras. Complete with a sustainable, whole animal ethos, uni makes everything taste a little more awesome, whether it’s mixed into pasta, served atop toast, or eaten raw straight from the shell.

Uni can be tough to get into. The texture is unique, the flavor a surprising mix of sweetness and ocean brine (plus, you are eating the sea urchin’s gonads). But this is a food in which perseverance pays off. Tim Archuleta, executive chef of sushi destination ICHI, hated uni the first nine times he tried it. “I gagged every time!” he says, slicing cucumbers at lightning speed for the evening’s service. “The tenth time, the clouds parted and I’ve never gone back since. Now, it’s my favorite thing ever.”

Tim gave me some tips for spotting quality uni. First, there are multiple classes of uni – A, B, and C – with A being the highest (it will be sweeter, with a bright yellow or gold color). A is then broken down into AAA, AA, and A levels, which further specifies the freshness, texture, and flavor. Second, take note of the appearance. “See how firm, how intact it is,” Tim explains. “When uni starts to age, it starts to break down entirely.”

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Great uni should be sweet, with a touch of metallic, ocean brine. Per Tim’s description, “It’s like making out with a mer-person.”

And know what you’re eating. Northern California uni has a robust, bold flavor, while Japanese uni is more mild. If the taste throws you, trying a Japanese import is a good place to start.

Fortunately, San Francisco has all kinds of delicious uni dishes to get you going. Check out six of my favorites, along with some suggestions for others to try.

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Nigiri is definitely one of the most recognizable ways of eating uni. ICHI’s version is unbeatable – perfectly textured vinegared rice is topped with a creamy, almost melting dollop of unctuous Fort Bragg urchin. The dish is lightly seasoned with house soy sauce and a crumble of wasabi. The nigiri preparation is Tim’s favorite uni approach, too: “The combination of vinegared rice, toasted seaweed, and sweet uni, that’s the best.”

Protip

Save the best for last. The chefs at ICHI serve uni nigiri as the “dessert” of their omakase meals.

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When it comes to eating live urchin straight from the shell, there’s no beating Swan Oyster, the always-packed seafood destination. Co-owner Tom Sancimino tells us that our rizzi, the Sicilian term for sea urchin, hails from the coast north of Fort Bragg. He halves the spiked urchin shell before gently removing the pink tongues of uni to rinse the inner juices, which are “kind of bitter.”

Once set down, I see that the urchin spines are moving – sometimes with enough vigor to gently scrape the plate. But spooning out each fillet (five total, dressed with a squeeze of lemon, per Tom’s suggestion) emphasizes just why these urchins need such vicious defenses: the creamy, custardy texture melts in my mouth, pooling into the light, sweet richness of the best urchin accentuated with a touch of metallic tang. Shark Kapenko, a Swan Oyster regular who’s sitting next to me, wisely declares, “It’s like eating fish ice cream.”

Protip

Tim from ICHI notes that with live urchin you don’t always know what you’re going to get when you split the shell. Trust the experts (like Swan Oyster), and ask plenty of questions about the age and origin of your uni.

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Bar Crudo may pack in the crowds for its epic happy hour, but the uni avocado toast is worth a dip into the regular dinner menu. Each serving includes two crostini-style toasts that use olive oil–crisped French bread as a base. Avocado is mashed and spritzed with sudachi (a Japanese citrus similar to lime) before two plump fillets of Mendocino uni are added to each toast. The avocado adds texture and richness but the flavor here is all uni, punched up with bright citrus and a sprinkling of salt.

The toasts are served with a spicy-bitter slaw of frisée and peppers that are also doused with a squeeze of sudachi. Keep it on the side – it makes for a nice flavor contrast with the rich-sweet toasts without dominating the flavor.

Protip

For a whole different kind of uni-filled sandwich, try the uni hotate at Chotto – rich, creamy urchin is layered between buttery slices of hokkaido scallop.

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Seeing that uni is basically the butter of the sea, there are some serious uni comfort foods out there. The uni flan from Fifth Floor is one of them. One of chef David Bazirgan’s most popular dishes, the flan (featuring Mendocino uni from Water 2 Table) has been on the menu since he began his tenure at the restaurant.

The warm, savory custard is primarily composed of uni and egg, and topped with Dungeness crab fondue, whole uni, saffron “air,” and aged kaffir lime zest. The air is aesthetically nice, but the flavor is all rich, buttery seafood, from the melting flan to the meaty butter-cooked crab. The uni on top emphasizes the subtle difference between straight uni and the more mellow, buttery flan.

Protip

Fifth Floor’s flan is a warmed-up riff on chawanmushi, a traditional Japanese egg custard made with uni. Try other delicious versions at Izakaya Yuzuki, Skool, and Mission Chinese.

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Imagine everything you could ever want when hung over, then make it better. That’s how good this menu staple from chef Matthew Accarrino is. Using smoked flour as a base for his fresh fettuccine, Matt figured adding bacon to an uni pasta couldn’t be bad. “Then I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to put a quail egg on top?” he says. Comforting and innovative, he feels that the dish is a good representation of his cooking style overall. “It combines, good, simple ingredients with great technique.”

The resulting dish is more than a little fun. Pliant, silken strands of the smoky fettuccine are studded with meaty bacon pieces and coated with a blend of uni and butter, and there’s a deep richness from the runny poached quail egg. It’s so popular that it never comes off the menu, and the restaurant goes through huge amounts of Mendocino uni to meet the demand (it uses “black label sushi quality” uni from the Mendocino coast). Apparently, one of the restaurant’s regulars refers to the dish as her “warm hug.” Digging in, I absolutely understand what she means.

Protip

Urchin is a common ingredient in Italian pasta dishes. Tim loves a version that’s often on the menu at La Ciccia, which includes uni and shaved, cured tuna heart on top.

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Flans and pastas make for good uni intro dishes – they showcase the rich flavor without making you deal with the texture. Uni on the Spoon at Nihon Whisky Lounge is another story entirely. This is advanced uni eating, maybe even more so than having it live from the guy at Swan Oyster.

“It looks kind of gross,” chef Adachi Hiroyuki says of the spoonful of urchin and raw quail egg. “But if you do try it, you’re going to like it!”

Adachi explains that the raw egg yolk coats your tongue, which makes the flavor of the hefty piece of Santa Barbara uni last longer. Grated radish adds a peppery freshness, while salty black tobiko and a dash of ponzu cut through the intense richness.

Protip

This is a classic Japanese dish and is often accompanied by a shot of sake to “clean out your mouth,” Adachi says. Koo has a version that Tim loves called “A Spoonful of Happiness” that includes the suggested shot, plus a piece of monkfish liver wrapped in whitefish.

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Try my favorite uni dishes at ICHI, Swan Oyster Depot, Bar Crudo, Fifth Floor, SPQR, and Nihon Whisky Lounge. Still hungry? Check out the also awesome uni creations at Chotto, Izakaya Yuzuki, Skool, Mission Chinese, La Ciccia, and Koo.

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Published on July 15, 2013, 2013

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