The spiny California sea urchin has busted out of the sushi bar and is having its moment on just about every menu in Los Angeles right now, in everything from uni jam to uni ice cream. It’s in pasta, zeppole, Mexican food, pajeon (Korean scallion pancake) and at the farmers market.
Why the urchin explosion? Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands produce some of the best in the world and have become ground zero for the briny roe that’s finding its way into every chef’s imagination. Good roe has a brightness to it and tastes like the breath you take just before diving under a wave.
“Uni has always been highly sought after,” Liwei Liao of the Joint Restaurant and Fish Market tells L.A. Weekly. “It’s trending now because of social media, and especially here in L.A. and Southern California. We have the greatest resource of Santa Barbara uni, which is one of the best in the world. Bang for the buck, local uni is absolutely phenomenal.”
There are a select few local divers and boats that just dive for uni off Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara Island, St. Nicolas Island, San Clemente Island and spots near Ventura. Liao says there are many factors that make our uni so distinct, such as water temperature and the sea creatures’ environment, determining taste of the spiny orbs that can be purple, brown, green or red.
“The taste of uni comes from what they are feeding on. The color of the roe depends on where they are from,” Liao explains. “If the uni is from kelp beds they’re one color, and if they are off reefs they are another color. If the urchin is eating a lot of kelp or fish, they are different colors. If they are eating algae they are another color. A good balance of reef and kelp is allowing our urchin to have a spectacular flavor."
There is no urchin farming — it’s 100 percent wild and hard to acquire. It requires a trained diver, and there is only so much urchin one person can harvest. That helps keep it sustainable. The price also helps to prevent overfishing.
"It’s all supply and demand,” Liao says. “Sea urchin is a commodity. Yield is a big factor. If the diver comes back with 100 pounds of urchin, it may only yield 40 pounds of good uni. Sometimes it may yield 80 pounds of good uni. You never know.”
Conditions of the water, the warmth of the water, the seasonality of the urchin and weather are big factors in determining uni prices. There are about 3,000 sushi restaurants in Los Angeles, all fighting for good urchin roe. If the weather is bad, that could mean only 500 pounds to go around, which drives up the price.
Here are five ways of enjoying uni outside the sushi bar:
The Joint Eatery: One of the most popular breakfast items here is called Uni Is My Jam. Liao takes top-grade Santa Barbara uni and makes a jam out of it. It’s everything you would imagine a jam to be — sweet, with the same consistency and texture. It gets spread on buttered and toasted brioche and is topped with soft scrambled egg that also has uni in it. 13718 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; (818) 510-0626, thejointeatery.com.
Crossings: Chef Kevin Malone’s uni carbonara is a mouthwatering mix of tagliatelle, smoked egg yolk, chorizo and San Joaquin Gold cheese topped with Santa Barbara uni. 1010 Mission St., South Pasadena; (626) 799-7001, crossings-restaurant.com.
Rappahannock Oyster Bar: Nick Erven's new seafood spot downtown is serving uni elote, Mexican-style corn with uni, smoked mayo piquillo hot sauce and crispy rice. 787 S. Alameda St., #154, downtown; (323) 435-4004, rroysters.com/restaurants/rappoysterbardtla.
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Wolfdown: Jason Kim's farm-to-table, Asian-American restaurant in Silver Lake has on the menu an uni pajeon: a garlic, chive and scallion pancake with Santa Barbara uni and creme fraiche. 2764 Rowena Ave., Silver Lake; (323) 522-6381, wolfdownla.com.
Cal Mare: Top Chef star Joe Sasto combines a traditional zeppole with local uni, white sturgeon caviar, lardo and prosciutto perched on a spiny urchin shell for an elegant and blissful mouthful before dinner. 8500 Beverly Blvd., West Hollywood; (424) 332-4595, michaelmina.net/restaurants/southern-california/calmare/.
Chateau Hanare: Chateau Marmont's new and exclusive speakeasy-style Japanese restaurant has uni toast made with toasted Japanese shokupan, topped with cherry blossom–smoked uni seasoned with soy; as well as savory house-made uni ice cream with fresh sea urchin. 8097 Selma Ave., Hollywood; (323) 963-5269, hanarela.com.