I remember someone three seats down from me at Ginza Sushi-ko (the predecessor of Urasawa), eating an entire box of the ochre uni that Masa Takayama had specially sourced. Sometimes, if you were lucky, he'd hand you a cone of exquisite black green toasted nori filled with four or five skeins of sea urchin roe. For me, that will always be the ultimate sea urchin experience. Not everybody appreciates its almost unbearably intense sea funk. As with bottarga, you generally either love it or hate it. I'm decidedly in the first camp, happy to eat it on top of a buttered crostini or toast, tossed raw with hot spaghetti as they eat it in Puglia, or eaten raw out of the shell.
Snag one of the half a dozen seats at the raw bar at this new casual seafood spot from M.B. Post's and former Water Grill chef David LeFevre. I love to watch as LeFevre opens up one of those purple-black Santa Barbara sea urchins the size of a Russian fur hat, deftly cleans it and separates out the roe, serving it up with buttered toast. It's quite the feast, a splurge for one, but usually enough for two to share as a starter. Afterward, order oysters, New England Clam Chowdah' or LeFevre's terrific Maryland blue crab cakes with whole grain mustard remoulade.
1148 Manhattan Ave., Manhattan Beach, (310) 893-6299. California sea urchin, $15.
My go-to appetizer on Providence's menu used to be Michael Cimarusti's sumptuous scrambled eggs with uni, but he's since rotated that particularly sexy dish off the menu of his two-star Michelin restaurant. Now, L.A.'s seafood maestro is serving what he calls the Ugly Bunch. Don't you love the name? The uglies are abalone, geoduck and sea urchin, none of which would normally make the most beautiful Instagram. Sorry, geoduck. But as a group, they look handsome presented atop a "sea" of smoked crème fraîche panna cotta and dressed up for the night with gold leaf.
5955 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 460-4170. The Ugly Bunch, $30.
Salvatore Marino was among the first Italian chefs to put crudo or Italian-style raw fish on his menu, and I still love going to Il Grano for the day's assortment, which often includes sea urchin roe. But I'm always dreaming of spaghetti alla ricci (with raw sea urchin), and he does his own twist with bigoli (a hand-rolled pasta) stained black with squid ink and tossed in a Santa Barbara sea urchin sauce. His vegetables are local too, and in tomato season, he grows a huge crop of heirlooms for the restaurant in his home garden.
11359 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310)477-7886. Bigoli with sea urchin sauce, $21.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times