They look like mean, inhospitable creatures, surrounded by spiny quills like some kind of underwater hedgehog. But once cracked open, sea urchins yield one of the great delicacies of the sea, pure ocean essence that is slightly rich on the tongue. You do not, in fact, eat sea urchin meat, but rather the gonads and eggs -- each one has five symmetrical sacs that cling to the insides of its shell.
While sea urchin is common on Asian menus -- particularly Japanese, where it's known as uni -- it's also a mainstay in Italian cooking, as the creatures are plentiful along the Puglian coast. The little tongue-shaped organs are often blended with olive oil, chicken stock or cream and tossed with hot pasta, yielding a dish that's pure seaside: salty, foamy, and complex, like a seawater carbonara.
Here in Los Angeles, they're making a splash on Italian menus around town (and, like oysters, they're considered freshest in months ending in -r, which makes them perfect for winter). Here are four of our favorites -- but call ahead to make sure they're available, as these dishes depend on a good supply of fresh urchin.
At this West Hollywood hot spot, the classic linguine and clams dish is enriched by uni (known in Italian as riccio di mare). The urchin is blended into the sauce, lending even more seafood-y goodness to an already ocean-forward dish. The pasta is then simply topped with sautéed clams, garlic and fresh herbs. It tastes remarkably light, but with a depth of flavor that's head and shoulders above the typical linguine alla vongole. For those who haven't tried urchin, this is a great way to test the waters, as the flavor isn't overwhelming, and there is little more romantic than a quiet table in Cecconi's Mad Men–ish dining room, twirling pasta onto a fork by candlelight. Oh, and did we mention urchin is considered an aphrodisiac? 8764 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (310) 432-2000.
Chef Jordan Toft is whipping up a dish that is as rich as an alfredo -- but miraculously uses no cream. Eveleigh uses only live urchins; opening up the shells as ordered, ensuring every dish is just-off-the-dock fresh. Toft blends the uni with olive oil and lemon and tosses the sauce with hand-cut semolina pasta. The tangle of wide and toothsome noodles is topped with garlic, breadcrumbs and bits of fluke bottarga (cured roe) that add a great textural contrast -- a pop or crunch in every bite. Be sure to reserve a table in the beautifully rustic back patio area, and the traffic of Sunset Boulevard will feel a world away. 8752 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (424) 239-1630
At his newish Culver City restaurant, chef Evan Funke and his Japanese pasta chef, Kosaku Kawamura, break the mold with their uni gnochetti, little ridged shells of pasta tossed with creamy uni, a bit of bread crumbs, a squeeze of citrus and salt. Cooked just al dente, the dish vaguely resembles Kraft Shells and Cheese and is nearly as creamy and rich yet also inexplicably, unbearably light -- and just try to keep from sopping up the sauce with a baguette. The uni is allowed to shine here, as both pasta and sauce are light on oil, garlic and other culinary distractions. It's as if you bottled the smell of the ocean, shook it up with the sound of a conch shell, and poured it over perfectly cooked pasta. Portions are on the small side here, but with this dish, less is more. 3280 Helms Ave., Culver City; (310) 876-0286.
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Like most everything at Gino Angelini's namesake restaurant, the sea urchin pasta is a perfectly classic Italian rendition -- and you'd be challenged to find a better one in Rome. Only serious uni lovers need apply: The pasta is tossed with blended uni and olive oil, and topped with two more tongues of urchin. You can eat them on their own or stir them into the knot of linguine below for an intense, bright and briny sauce. It's remarkably simple -- only a handful ingredients in the whole dish -- but a spectacular way to spend a chilly winter night. You can almost hear the ocean. 7313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 297-0070.
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