Now that foie gras is just a delicious ghost of our culinary past, uni is the delicacy with top billing on every trend-conscious menu in L.A.
It's a strange food, when you think about it. How did anyone know to open up a spiny sea urchin and feast on its goopy orange gonads? Because of its unusual texture, color and provenance, there are many reasonable people who are afraid to eat uni. But these reasonable people have no idea what they're missing.
Good uni is as creamy as custard, and it melts with no resistance, releasing a rich, complex, unforgettable flavor full of cool sweetness and gentle salt. There are few foods more subtly exquisite.
You can — and should — order uni at any of the sushi restaurants in L.A., but it's always fun to see how the cool kids are using the ingredient du jour. We are a city full of creative, food-obsessed minds, and some of them are sourcing top-shelf sea urchin to incorporate into a wide range of dishes and cuisines.
Guerrilla Tacos: Guerrilla Tacos is a truck with limited hours and a constantly rotating menu that is never announced in advance. Its kampachi uni tostada is the hardest dish to track down on this list. It is well worth some vigilance. The tostada features Hawaiian kampachi and Santa Barbara uni, togarashi, pluots, George Bliss avocado, lime and serrano chile piled on a round of crunchy tortilla. It’s a pretty ambitious tostada with a lot of disparate elements, but each bite makes its own kind of sense. Each ingredient is top quality, including the silky kampachi and the ocean-fresh uni. At Blacktop Coffee, 826 E. 3rd St., Los Angeles, Thursdays through Sundays; Cognoscenti Coffee, 6114 Washington Blvd., Culver City, Wednesdays, (818) 640-3033; www.guerrillatacos.com. $8.
République: At Walter Manzke’s République, uni gets the breakfast treatment in a deceptively simple dish dubbed “eggs on toast.” There are three pieces to an order, each built with a thick slab of toast, a layer of soft-scrambled eggs and a delicate piece of Santa Barbara uni on top. The eggs are as noteworthy as the uni, with that loose, wet consistency that I can never come close to accomplishing at home. They pair stunningly well with the uni — the flavors come off gentle but deep, and the textures blend softly with the fluff and crust of the toast. 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (310) 362-6115, www.republiquela.com. $16.
Paiche: Paiche is Ricardo Zarate’s latest L.A. venture, billed as an izakaya that calls on the Japanese flavors in Peruvian cuisine. Zarate is an inventive chef with a fun point of view, so it’s only natural that one of Paiche’s signature dishes is a quirky showcase for uni. The uni shrimp toast is a triumph of culinary fusion, combining sea urchin with shrimp paste and a rocoto honey sauce — a little brine, a little sugar and a whole lot of umami. It’s a unique creation guaranteed to ignite greed in any adventurous eater. 13488 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey, (310) 893-6100, www.paichela.com. $21.
Petty Cash Taquería: Best known as a fancy taquería and cocktail bar, Petty Cash is also L.A.’s leading purveyor of uni-fied Latin cuisine. You can add uni to any ceviche or aguachile for $10, or you can spend an extra $3 on your guacamole and order the bomb.com. This is premium guacamole topped with five velvet lobes of uni, served with a heaping can of spiced chicharrones. You’d think the subtle urchin would get lost in the folds of smooth avocado. You’d be wrong. It shines, and it makes the avocado taste even better. 7360 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 933-5300, www.pettycashtaqueria.com. $12.
Pot: Leave it to Roy Choi to cook up something as tasty/ludicrous as an uni dynamite rice bowl. The Beep Beep features a big mix of palate-blasting flavors: yuzu, seaweed, sesame and whatever goes into that spicy, tangy dynamite sauce. The uni might get lost if there weren’t plenty of it, but it does very well in the dish, adding its sweet briny flavor and a creamy texture that melds with the dynamite. The rice is slightly fried, adding another pleasurable layer to the dish. Line Hotel, 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 368-3030, www.eatatpot.com. $18.
A-Won: A-Won is your Korean mom’s favorite spot for Korean-Japanese seafood. It can’t rival Pot for hipness, but it offers an uni rice dish that would sell like spiky hot cakes if the place had an Instagram. For $15, you can get live uni with rice, a sort of bibimbap with the sea urchin shell as its bowl. It comes with rice, pickled radish, seaweed and sesame seeds, and you mix it all up, separating the uni from the walls of the shell as you go. It’s not always on the menu — ask for the saeng sunggae, which translates precisely, and insufficiently, to “live uni.” 913 S. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 389-6764. $15.
Marugame Monzo: There’s no place like Marugame Monzo for an artisanal bowl of udon, but the menu strays from the strictly traditional to our great benefit. The uni cream udon is a must-try, a giant bowl of slippery noodles swimming in an uni-and-cream-thickened broth that is halfway to a loose pasta sauce. It looks too heavy to gulp on its own when the noodles are gone, but I can attest that it’s delicious. There’s a lot of sea urchin in this bowl, disintegrating hunks of it floating in every spoonful. The udon comes topped with a shiso leaf and, if you’re lucky, a dollop of salmon roe. 329 E. 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 346-9762, www.facebook.com/marugamemonzo. $15.95.
EMC Seafood & Raw Bar: Uni cream pasta is a Japanese-Italian fusion classic, a concept that must be a bit older than the more recent uni tostadas and uni toasts. EMC does an excellent version, a bowl of spaghetti topped with uni, fish roe, chive and a sprinkle of dried seaweed. The pasta is cooked al dente, and the sauce is both light and rich, sea urchin liquefied with only a little fat. The best bites are the ones that incorporate the two wet tongues of uni, but there's plenty of flavor in every twirl. 3500 W. 6th St., Los Angeles, (213) 351-9988, www.emcseafood.com. $20.
Osteria Mozza: I could have filled this list with fancy restaurant pastas, but Italian stronghold Osteria Mozza dominates its competitors in the high-end uni pasta game. The squid ink chitarra freddi features an abundance of sea urchin, Dungeness crab and jalapeño. The pasta is served at room temperature, and it has an al dente texture reminiscent of freshly made soba noodles. The dish tastes like the ocean — the salt of squid ink, the sweetness of crab, a layer of creaminess and body from the urchin. The jalapeño adds a restrained but elevating dose of heat. 6602 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 297-0100, www.osteriamozza.com. $24.