Some people like fuzzy mittens and making snow angels. Me, not so much. One of the few things I enjoy about winter (specifically, October to March) is that sea urchin is in season from Maine. But there was a time when I knew nothing of “uni,” as the Japanese call its roe, which is the edible portion. Kind of like the first time smoking pot, most people recount their initial sea urchin experience as naive and awkward. With the former, there is coughing and anti-climax, while with the latter, gagging is a distinct possibility. My introduction came at the urging of my sister, eight years my senior and always right.
We were at Iso, where all my early sushi training took place. (Sadly, Iso the restaurant is no more, though some of Iso’s impeccably trained sushi chefs are reinstated at Koi, in the same location.) Carla ordered two pieces of “uni with quail egg.” What was handed to us by Iso himself was foreign—a pale pumpkin-colored wobble with a microscopically bumpy surface texture similar to a tongue, over rice, wrapped in nori. On top was a raw quail egg yolk—God forbid it should break before you figure out how to fit the whole thing in your mouth.
There are two common problems when uni hits virgin taste buds; namely flavor and texture. Fresh high quality sea urchin is just firm enough to stay together, like pudding with an imperceptible skin. It quickly melts in your mouth. Unfortunately, it conjures up the word “gonad.” The taste is initially funky and brings to mind the phrase “bottom-feeder” or the image of something stuck to the dock in a lake. And that’s when gagging can happen. Despite all that, it took me only a couple of tries to acquire this taste. Sea urchin is delicious: subtle, sweet, creamy, and sea-salty rather than fishy. It’s basically like making out with a heavenly mermaid. (In fact I have heard a ruder version of that description.)
Actually, sea urchin is thought to be an aphrodisiac. It gets its beauty rest in kelp patches about 50 miles off-shore in every ocean on the planet, and of course, it is one of those delicacies that must be fresh and handled perfectly. At this point, I have at least two pieces of uni with quail egg whenever I get the chance. Even better, I eat uni right out of its dark, spiny shell (it looks black, but is usually red, and can also be purple) at Koi, or tossed with pasta and butter at fancy Italian restaurants. Mario Batali adds crabmeat at Esca.