Fishy Upgrade

Would you like urchin with that?

Illustration by Tim Bower

The waiter at Red Medicine is asking me if I want to add uni to my heirloom rice porridge for $10 extra. Really—uni as a topping? Like adding chicken to your Caesar salad at a chain restaurant? I fear he’s going to ask me if, for another three bucks, I want to throw a cupcake in there, too.

Ten years ago sea urchin was only served at sushi joints in L.A. It was an expensive, sea-sweet, rich delicacy that was dug out of a neon-colored spiny shell. Which was cool. But it was also sickly orange, had a major texture problem, and needed to be described with the word gonads, though smart restaurants tricked you by calling it sea urchin “roe.”

Then American chefs like Mario Batali began addressing the texture issue by mixing uni into pasta sauces or spreading it on bread. Now it’s the new egg, folded into any dish to add easy umami. It’s in a sauce on scallops at Raphael in Studio City, in scrambled eggs at Providence, in pasta at Angelini Osteria and Osteria Mozza, in risotto at the Hungry Cat. Scott Conant makes amazing seafood pasta at Scarpetta by using uni to oceanize the sauce, which is, in fact, a traditional preparation along the Adriatic and in Sicily, where they call the gonads ricci di mare.

Sure, I like uni on my food. I also like eating eggs, cupcakes, and macarons. But I also know when it’s time to pretend I don’t like those things to protect my street cred. So I turned down that offer at Red Medicine, and the waiter liked my call, as if I were a world-weary diner who had just stirred uni into my Cheerios that morning. I wanted to appreciate the subtleties of my heirloom rice. I can’t wait to start hating heirloom rice.