Sushi lovers think of sea urchin roe as the Japanese delicacy called uni, a coral-colored, spongy-velvety, sexy-tasting maritime fluff perched atop a puck of seasoned rice. Few Americans realize that it’s also savored worldwide wherever the temperate seas will nurture the critters.
1955 W. Morena Boulevard, San Diego
Tony D’Amato, owner of Baci Restaurant in the Bay Park district, wants more Americans to learn to love these exquisite morsels. “Everybody in Italy eats ricci di mare,” he says. “They sell them on the streets in Sicily. You cut them in half and scoop them out and serve them on bread. And I’m sure they’re aphrodisiac…But the one difficulty is, Americans don’t always like them. They say, ‘They seem live, the spines are moving!’ And they don’t like that. Sometimes we serve them as a special on a Monday, and we [the staff] end up eating them ourselves. We’re going to have to educate the people, like we did with calamari. Squid were about two cents a pound when we opened this restaurant in 1979. Americans said, ‘They’re just bait, we don’t eat that!’ Now every Italian restaurant serves calamari, and when you buy them raw, they’re $5 a pound.”
To start introducing sea urchins to a wider “eat-ience” than just sushi fans, Baci held a five-course special Mediterranean-style feast of fresh local seafood, featuring sea urchins, paired with fine Italian wines on March 5. At $85, including matched wines and tip, it was an irresistible deal. The minute I read about it on Marcie Rothstein’s super-hip food blog (foodbuzzsd.com), I called to make a reservation for two. Then I emailed Sam, the most adventurous palate of all the posse: “Uni feast at Baci. MUST GO. Come with me?” Of course.
“We got the urchins from a professional diver, Peter,” Tony told me later. “Peter usually sells them to Catalina Offshore [the seafood wholesaler in the Morena District, source of most local sushi uni]. You buy it there, you can buy out of the shell, it’s already cleaned. Peter wanted to promote it. His idea was to see it on more menus, not just Japanese but in American restaurants, Italian restaurants, all types of restaurants.”
I asked him whether the urchins had to be transported in seawater to keep them alive until serving. “No, you just put them in a cooler. They’re alive until you cut them in half. After that, the fibers are often still moving, but they’re not alive anymore.”
If you’re reading this, you deserve to eat the very best (and sea urchin is certainly one of the most splendid foods on the planet) and not to be put off by appearances. And heaven knows, the appearance of a sea urchin is off-putting! Ever see the classic Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles”? A local sea urchin looks like an un-cute tribble, a featureless, hard-shelled globe about the size of a grapefruit, covered with purple-black porcupine quills instead of fur. So before we get to the Baci dinner, let’s talk for a bit about the global embrace of sea urchins and the tough truths about their anatomy.
Along with Sicilians, the French love sea urchins and use them joyously in custards and soufflés or mixed with cream as sauces for seafoods. South Americans savor them, too. My first taste of sea urchin, long before I ever tasted sushi, was in Chile. Friends from Santiago took me on an excursion to the charming port of Valparaiso, famed for its funicular cable car climbing to the top of the coastal cliffs. One of the local specialties at the seaside restaurants was sea urchin stew, with onions, tomatoes, and fish stock. “Be careful, though,” Pilar warned, “a lot of people get a little sick if they eat too many urchins at once.” The urchins in the stew had a faint iodine flavor (either because they were a bit too old, or maybe because the pollution of the port waters had affected their flavor). But I fell in love with the airy-spongy-lush texture and…ate too many. The next day I was green around the gills, indeed. Pili nursed me with the standard South American digestive remedy of coca-leaf tea. (How stupid our drug laws are! All over western South America, people use coca leaves as herbal medicine, and they don’t get you high in the slightest — they’re not “coke” until they’re chemically processed with mineral lime into white powder. As a restaurant reviewer, I can’t tell you how often I’ve yearned for coca-leaf tea!)
It’s hard to imagine what prompted a land-based mammal to try collecting and eating hard spiky balls from the ocean floor — probably sheer hunger, same as what got us to try the heavily armored sea-bugs called lobsters. But maybe we learned about them from the lobsters. A few years ago, I bought a couple of local spiny lobsters and a half dozen urchins from a local fisherman. I put the lobsters in the left side of my divided kitchen sink, the urchins on the right. The lobsters grew so agitated by the smell of their favorite food, they rose up on their hind claws and tried to climb over the divide, no doubt yelling in lobsterlish, “Ms. Wise, tear down this wall!” (Perhaps some early human diver, snagging lobsters, noticed his prey feasting on this aquatic hedgehog and decided, “The prey of my prey is my prey.” Smooth move, dude.)
Dealing with whole, live urchins that evening provided insight into their true nature. You put on heavy gloves (oven mitts or butcher gloves) to pick them up, take kitchen shears, and starting at the little hole on the top of the shell (that’s the anus, not the mouth), you cut diagonally to the periphery, then continue cutting around the circumference until the top half of the shell can be lifted off. Inside, you find the lovely coral fluff, under a swamp of salty brown bilgewater to pour away. Not much else is in there. Checking Google (“sea urchin anatomy”), I learned that the sea urchin is all sex, literally no brain. Go ahead, make all the blonde jokes you want. About 20 percent of the total weight of a sea urchin consists of the male gonad or the female roe (please don’t ask how to tell which is which, I didn’t find that out). Minus the shell, roughly 80 percent of an urchin’s internal contents are devoted to reproduction. The rest is for eating and excreting seaweed and barnacles and now and then moving along the ocean floor to find the next barnacle or kelp patch. It’s so dumb, it can’t even read Harlequin romances or Penthouse.
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.