Chaya Is the Center of the Uni-verse

Santa Barbara sea urchin is the star of Shigefumi Tachibe’s special menu this month

California’s season for sea urchin peaks about this time of year. Uni is how the Japanese refer to this echinoderm loved by epicureans.

Once you brave past its foreboding, spiked, naval-mine appearance and crack open the uni to reveal tranches of creamy, golden-orange gonads (not roe) that seduce the tongue like sweet-oceanic foie gras, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most exotic and alluring flavors marine life has to offer.

Chaya is highlighting Santa Barbara sea urchin with a special March 10-31 Uni Fare menu created by executive chef Shigefumi Tachibe that interweaves, dollops, or otherwise works uni into each a la carte dish, enhancing most everything it touches.

But often, uni is amazing purely on its own.

When the Live Uni with Dashi Jelly is paraded out, it gets as much attention as sparklers spraying fire off of a molten chocolate cake. The sight of uni plated on its own armor is almost as attention-getting as if Lady Gaga were on the plate herself wearing an uni gown. With the uni extracted à la minute from its live source, it is as fresh as can be. Contributing a gelatin texture and deeper umami flavor is the dashi jelly.

Another texture play is experienced with the Homemade Uni Tofu with Wasabi Soy. Creamy tofu with a peanut butter-like texture is blended with wasabi, soy, and sesame paste then molded into a cube and topped with fresh uni. The unifying flavors and mouthfeel create a rarefied food encounter.

The Uni and Snow Crab Cake could almost be overkill and annoy some intolerable foodies, but there is excellent harmony and balance with the primary ingredients of snow crab, shiitakes, miso, and uni. The crab cake, grilled to a light crisp crust, is generously meaty and made better by uni’s sweet creaminess.

Commonly, uni is applied to starches like pasta and rice. Chaya’s most exquisite item on its Uni Fare roster is the Uni and Abalone Risotto. Crunchy grilled slices of young abalone are the main event, but the well-prepared risotto and bits of rich uni turn this triumvirate into a triumph of sea-sweet, smoky, and savory tastes and textures.

After all, there is no “unique” without uni.

redarrow Chaya, 110 Navy St., Venice, 310-396-1179 and 525 S. Flower St., Downtown, 213-236-9577