Dreaming of Uni

May 1, 2010

Lying in bed with my foot above my heart, I've had a lot of time to think about what I'd be eating if I were anywhere but here.  At first I thought about pork belly.

These days it's hard to find a modern restaurant that doesn't serve the stuff. David Chang kick-started the trend, at least in New York, by slipping fat chunks of pork belly and slim slices of cucumber into pale buns slathered with hoisin. This seductive combination of sweet, salty and smooth catapulted this hitherto cheap meat into instant fame. Before long we were being offered slabs of uncured bacon on every menu.

Gordon Ramsay flattens it. Jamie Oliver roasts it with vegetables. Emeril glazes it with tangerines.  Dan Barber cures it with cumin, coriander and fennel. Eric Ripert likes it with skate, and Daniel likes it in his burgers. April Bloomfield smokes it. Alain Ducasse candies it. But last week, a waiter offered me pork belly braised in Coca Cola, and that was it for me.

So I've been dreaming of sea urchins. They're the sexiest seafood-thorny, fragrant and complex. With their intense orange color and soft, sensual texture, they're the kind of food that a chef can have his way with.

David Pasternak at Esca, is a more is less kind of guy, and I've been thinking about the way he serves them -simply on the half shell. Dave likes to add olive oil, but I think it's unnecessary. David Chang, a more is more kind of guy, nestles them into a froth of whipped tofu, hiding chewy little balls of tapioca in the bottom of the bowl. It's a meditation on texture, three kinds of soft in a single bite, and I'd give anything to be eating that right now.

Michael White's sea urchin bruschetta at Marea layers rich onto richer, hiding little piles of fluffy orange roe beneath a slick layer of melting lardo. It's the ultimate surf and turf so ridiculously delicious it's almost impossible to eat without a twinge of guilt. I'd like some right now please.

The uni panino at El Quinto Pinto  – a slim ficelle slathered with butter and slicked with mustard oil – would also make me very happy. The bread is crisp and warm, the sea urchins cool and creamy, the mustard oil just a bit of zing at the end of your tongue. I think it's the best sandwich in the city.

I've been dreaming about uni chawan mushi at Sushi Zen too. Toshio Suzuki emphasizes the wobbly softness of sea urchins by cradling them inside the slight tightness custard and tucking a few creamy ginko nuts and some sweet shrimp in among them. Spooning it up is a wonderful way to make any day seem better.

But while I'm fantasizing, why not go for Eric Ripert's  surely sea urchin linguini?  He melts the roe into butter, tosses it with linguini, adds a bit of parmesan and a touch of pepper, then tosses caviar on top. I can almost taste it.

So what if I can't walk for a week?  I'm eating virtual food – and having a very fine time.

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