Uni Is The New Decadent Ingredient Of The Hour

Move over kale, cauliflower and truffle anything…Uni is the new decadent ingredient of the hour for the savvy palette. It’s also been called the foie gras of the sea. Uni is that mustardy-gold edible part of the sea urchin, which is in high-demand and now featured on most trendy menus.  Although you can harvest it from several locations worldwide, one of the largest and most popular sources is right here in the U.S., particularly the west coast with some of the very best coming from California and Oregon.

The most well-known and most-eaten form of uni is as nigiri or sashimi, though the popular menu item has started to appear on gourmet sandwiches, pastas, risottos and salads. For me personally, what I love most about fresh uni is the light, yet rich taste of the sea and the creamy consistency. Just like any ingredient from the sea, it’s all about freshness and quality. I have always said, when it comes to the world’s best ingredients, do as little as possible to them. Uni is one of those- It does not require anything and is best enjoyed directly from the shell.

Uni 2

The first thing to look for is the consistency. Uni that is firm and dry indicates it is retaining moisture the right way. On the same note, slimy or soft-looking uni most likely means it’s a good idea to stay away. Just like any delicacy, the art comes in the preparation and creativity.

Hippie Fish Mykonos
Hippie Fish Mykonos

My absolute favorite place to eat uni is at a little seaside restaurant in Mykonos called Hippie Fish on Agios Ioannis, right by the water. They brush this amazing, crusty bread lightly with olive oil and then toast it to perfection on the grill. You use this as your spoon to scoop the uni right out of its shell. Trust me— sitting in the sun, dining on uni with a fabulous glass of chilled champagne—it really doesn’t get any better than that! Try pairing uni with a well-aged Muscadet and you’ll have a match made in heaven. The uni requires the acidity of the wine to round out the flavor.

Uni[1] copy

Recently I got to enjoy some fabulous uni served on ice at one of my all time favorite restaurants on the Amalfi Coast near Nerano, called Lo Scoglio.  Slightly smaller yield but straight from the sea and caught only hours before, I was in heaven and immediately ordered two more.

Lo Scoglio
Lo Scoglio

I recently launched a New York based catering company called F.O.O.D. Inc. [Food of Overwhelming Distinction], which brings the signature dishes of Michelin chefs to client events. In the process I was able to learn from one of my favorite chefs, Ming Tsai, who offered his tips on uni:

Chef-Ming-Tsai copy

“The best uni on the planet is Hokkaido, as almost any chef will inform you. It’s packed with umami and just tastes like the sea. When I used to have my show ‘Ming’s Quest’ on Food Network, I did an entire episode on uni in Port Orford, Oregon.

We were initially there on an Indian reservation to do a show on hunting and preparing bull, but after some mishaps we were forced to scrap the shoot and ended up going elsewhere. Luckily, it worked out for the best and I was able to substitute the original concept with something even better. 

I spotted fishing boats from a distance and when I got closer, I noticed that one had a crate of uni twice the size of my car. The fisherman who caught the uni happened to recognize me and as we started chatting, he invited me on a dive with him the next morning.  

I’m a certified diver so I was extremely excited about the dive, especially since it worked as a perfect replacement for the episode. We got our underwater cameras set up and the next day we were diving for uni, surrounded by sea lions close enough to touch.

After calibrating to make sure the uni was legal size-wise, we headed back and ate it right out of the shell. To this day it is the freshest uni I’ve ever tasted, which does make a lot of difference in the taste and quality; I can’t stress enough that when it comes to uni, freshness is everything.

My tip? Wrap the fresh, uncooked uni in seaweed and top with a raw quail egg. Keep away from the soy sauce- uni is natural and already packs enough flavor, so even a drop of lemon juice goes a long way. 

If you are going to cook it, uni bisque is unbelievable. Heat up some dashi, put it in a blender, and add tons of uni, some butter, salt, pepper, and garnish with a piece of fresh uni. It seems simple enough but it makes for an incredible dish.

Last but not least, the uni from Masa is the best in New York. Their uni risotto with koshihikari comes with shaved white truffles on top, and I can tell you first-hand it is a truly ethereal experience, a must-try!”