Since it’s brainless, when you address a freshly opened, newly cleaned sea urchin on the half shell, the spines may still be waving. All that means is, the urchin doesn’t really have a clue yet whether it’s alive or dead — it doesn’t have the intellectual equipment to realize there’s an either/or distinction. When you eat a carrot freshly pulled from your yard, when does the carrot realize it’s dead? How can you know? As an animal, the sea urchin is very nearly a vegetable, distinguished only by the lack of cell walls and its rudimentary abilities to move and eat. Judging by its anatomical proportions, it’s not even all that interested in those functions — if it had a mind, it’d be a one-track mind, like that slobby letch you blind-dated once back in high school.
Back to the dinner: Baci means “kiss.” The restaurant is a warren of warm, attractive, Italianate rooms — a bar and dining room at street level, two more rooms two steps up, and in back, a large patio that could pass for an upper-class courtyard in pre-eruption Pompeii, with handsome ornamental stonework at the periphery. The waiters are in tuxes, and the restaurant is known as a power-lunch spot for the city’s honchos — but at dinner, the patrons’ garb was tieless, shirt-sleeve casual. You get the flawless, tuxedoed service without having to be flawless yourself.
Ricci is Italian for uni — remember that when you go to the movies and see sexy Christina Ricci, who in many roles seems as louche as a spoonful of sea urchin roe. The first course began with ricci in the shell. The spines were still moving when the waiter delivered the course. It was not quite as pretty as Botticelli’s Venus on the Half-Shell, but it was delicious — a purple-spined shell-basket containing chilled roe strewn with chopped chives, in a flirty broth mingling the maritime juices with Prosecco (a sparkling dry Italian wine resembling champagne, but not as aggressively bubbly). The accompanying wine was Insolia Grande Prosecco, perfectly apropos.
Simultaneously, we received tartines di ricci and tapenade, offering small, lightly toasted slices of baguette topped with urchin roe and what seemed like soft, salty black caviar resembling sevruga — it was actually black-olive tapenade, soaked by sea urchin juice until it tasted like sturgeon roe. It was salty-delightful, topped with plenty of chopped chives.
Next, with glasses of Sicilian Chardonnay, came more spiky shells, this time containing a bisque of mussel meats, bay scallops, and sea urchin. The creamy liquid bisque was rich and pale pink, all the seafoods tender. The house breads consisted of fingers of garlic toast, handy for sopping.
A right-sized portion of thick, succulent al dente linguine followed, dressed simply with olive oil, a bit of hot dried pepper, roasted whole garlic cloves for earthy sweetness, and teaspoonfuls of sea urchin introduced into the dish at the last moment before serving, just to warm. “You don’t want to cook them too much,” said Tony. This is one of the more traditional Italian dishes of the dinner, and in it, the precious roe was reduced to an important supporting role — an airy Ariel serving the charismatic Prospero of the pasta.
The entrée reduced the urchin still further, to a player snagging a vital bit part. Local swordfish, lightly floured with a crisp, browned surface, arrived in a citrusy sauce of lime juice, cream, and puréed urchin. The roe contributed only a subtle richness to the sauce, which made good sopping for the garlic bread. The wine was red Nero Davilo — yes, red wine is fine with meaty swordfish.
Cookbook author James Peterson, in his Fish and Shellfish, notes that he has a recipe for sea urchin ice cream — but he didn’t include it in his book. And I’m sure that somewhere in New York or Chicago, an avant-garde chef is making uni-vanilla crème brûlée or anchovy-coconut gelato — but not here. We received two versions of “torta dello chef,” one an airy white chocolate custard square over light cake, and the other its dark chocolate sibling. These came with glasses of grappa (the Italian equivalent of French marc or, um, bootleg brandy) mixed with limoncello liqueur — a bracing, energizing drink to steel us for reentry into the cold of night.
This isn’t a review of Baci, just a report on an especially interesting dinner there. (The restaurant has a fine reputation, and I look forward to trying the regular menu one of these days.) I wish that more local restaurants made such interesting, courageous leaps beyond their regular menus into exploring fabulous, less-familiar foodstuffs like this. Baci is planning on holding another sea urchin dinner in a month or two, and Tony promised to alert me in advance. When I know, you’ll know.