I Only Have Eyes For Uni
Growing up, my experiences with sea urchin revolved around swimming in the ocean and trying to avoid stepping on those beautiful, long black and pink prongs of wana that poke out of every nook and cranny of the reef. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to see those spiky creatures in a new, delicious, light.
Epicureans with an adventurous palate know that sea urchin roe — commonly referred to in Hawaii by its Japanese name uni — has long been a delicacy around the world. It Italy, it is known as ricci di mare, and in New Zealand, it goes by kina. Regardless of what you call it, uni is a trendy item at the moment, showing up in pastas and paninis in some of the most foodie-forward establishments in the country.
Why is it so treasured, you may ask? Well, in its most fresh, high-quality form, uni has a luxuriously silky texture and an unbelievably distinctive flavor. It’s hard to compare to other foods — you simply have to try it for yourself — and it is somewhat of an acquired taste. People usually love it or hate it.
Not surprisingly, Ono, You Know absolutely loves it, and I’ve lined up both traditional and trendy takes on this coveted ingredient just for you.
WHERE GREAT URCHIN IS LURKIN’
Takayuki Sekine, the executive chef at Sakura Terrace Japanese Cafe, feels that uni is one of the most unique ingredients a chef can work with, as it embodies richness unlike any other seafood. In following with the long-established Japanese tradition, he adds that the best way to eat uni is when it is fresh and raw.
In his Hana Chirashi ($25) special, Sekine creates the perfect platform upon which to savor uni in its prime. The bowl of assorted seafood and rice offers an array of the freshest catches available that day, along with tobiko and other flavorful accouterments. When Ono, You Know stopped by, ahi, crab and salmon were among the bright assortment.
The centerpiece of the dish is uni, of course, which always is placed like a crowned jewel in the center of the bowl. Since Sekine only uses top-quality, fresh uni — never frozen — imported from Japan when possible, or other premium destinations like Santa Barbara, California, a limited supply is available and the special is first come, first served.
Hana Chirashi is available for lunch and dinner today through the end of the month. Enjoying it on a daily basis is a real treat for Sakura’s loyal and first-time patrons alike, especially since chirashi is usually reserved for special occasions and holidays in Japan.
Sekine adds that he purposely lets the uni shine in its raw glory so customers can appreciate its full-bodied flavor, while the other seafood plays a supporting role in the dish. Gobble up Hana Chirashi alongside Sakura Terrace’s menu of donburi, traditional bentos, sushi, desserts and more.
Sakura Terrace Japanese Cafe
1240 S King St, Honolulu
HOW ITALIANS DO UNI
Along the coast of Italy, it’s customary to dive into raw sea urchin roe, freshly cracked open right by the shore, or use it to flavor simple yet delicious pastas and risottos. Uni pasta in particular has made its way out of Italy and into the global foodie scene, including right here in the Islands at Il Lupino Trattoria & Wine Bar.
Recognizing the popularity of the dish, executive chef James Donahue decided to create his own version of Uni Pasta for the dinner menu, which is priced at $36 (or $126 for a large, sharable family-style portion). It features a sensuous sauce created by blending uni with a simple mix of extra virgin olive oil, chives and garlic. The textural complexities of the silky-smooth sea urchin are the only qualities needed to make the sauce lavish. As Donahue puts it, “I like uni because it provides its own creaminess. It’s not really a dry product, and I don’t need to add any cream to the dish.”
Even better, he’s currently offering an uni-inspired special over the next few weeks: Seared Yellowfin Tuna with spaghetti and sea urchin sauce ($43). Served up at the haven of Italian fare located at Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki, the special highlights the aforementioned uni pasta sauce but with the addition of seared ahi, which works to complement, rather than compete with, the sea urchin.
For both the special and the regular uni pasta, raw pieces of uni are like cherries on top of the cake. And since most island patrons are used to nibbling on uni at fine Japanese restaurants, it’s refreshing to enjoy it in a new, Italian way with these renditions.
Il Lupino Trattoria & Wine Bar
Royal Hawaiian Center,
2233 Kalakaua Ave, Waikiki