Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sea Urchin: Not Uni

What you're looking at was listed on the menu at CityZen in Washington, DC, as CARNAROLI RISOTTO BIOLOGICO with Meyer Lemon Confit, Maine Sea Urchin, Caramelized Salsify and Baby Spinach Legerement Cuit. The Sea urchin is between the spinach leaves.

If you like your uni, as in sushi, taken from the wooden box behind the sushi bar and served with rice and seaweed, then you would probably love sea urchin that is truly fresh. The difference is commensurate with almost any seafood that has arrived at your restaurant alive as opposed to having been harvested off the coast of California, flown to Japan, packaged there, then flown back to a dealer or distributor in the US before getting there.

Only once or twice in my life have I observed fresh whole sea urchins at a local seafood market here in Baltimore. Even if they had been dead for a while, I regret not purchasing them if only for the experience of opening them and shooting a photograph or two.

Shirley King’s Fish: The Basics offers instruction for opening sea urchins that notes the need to wear heavy gloves lest their spines prick your hands and fingers. So protected, you pierce the shell with scissors about 1 ½ inches from the mouth and cut out a lid. Beneath will be five compartments from which the yellow-orange "tongues" or "roe" can be removed with a small spoon. What you are removing isn't really tongues or roe, but gonads, the only part of the species that’s edible.

Only twice in the United States has it been my good fortune to enjoy sea urchin in any form other than Japanese uni. The first occasion was in New York, in 1988, at Le Bernardin. It was wonderful, and served in a lemony buttery sauce, into which the delicate essence of those gonads had been well infused.

The second occasion was last night as pictured above at CityZen in Washington DC. I didn’t inquire, but the so-fresh taste suggested sea urchin that was alive minutes before. Needless to say, CityZen pushed their creative envelope preparing this dish with so many different ingredients. For me, however, the treat of so much as a morsel or two of fresh sea urchin transcended it all.

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