Friday, November 14, 2008

Uni in abundance: From shooters to sushi rolls, these restaurants serve sea urchin up right.

For those who don't speak fluent sushi, uni is the Japanese name for a sea urchin's edible bits. Unfortunately, those bits aren't very pretty, nor are the creamy, tongue-like textures. But what it lacks in aesthetics, uni more than makes up for in flavor. If you're not put-off by its hideous appearance and strange consistency, you'll appreciate these sushi spots that do it right. And if you are one to judge based on looks, well, it's time to branch out.

This Uptown sushi spot seems a strange fit amongst the downtrodden homes and shops in its low-key laidback surroundings. It's strikingly similar to the way uni comes off when presented alongside its less-sought-after kin (e.g. the crab-stuffed California roll). And the sea urchin puts all other dishes to shame here when it's served as a shooter. The oversize shot glass, filled with sake, uni and a quail egg makes for quite the fancy treat, and fancy treats don't come cheap. But even at seven bucks a pop, it's worth ordering up a couple of these exotic delicacies.

Usagi Ya
This Wicker Park eatery knows that its loyal sushi lovers expect nothing but the best. That's why the restaurant uses the highest quality (Grade A) uni in all four of its glorious, sea urchin-inspired selections. You can be sure that it's the good stuff by checking for a bold yellow color, a firm (as firm as a creamy tongue can be) texture and just a sweet tinge of mild citrus. Adventurous types should start with Usagi Ya's classic uni shooter, prepared with Ponzu, quail egg and chili sauce. From there, you'll have your pick of uni sashimi, ika (squid) with uni and fish eggs and an uni custard with uni, scallop shitake mushrooms in a custard sauce.

Oysy, which means "delicious" in Japanese, holds true to its tasty moniker with its nigiri-style preparation of fresh uni. The bottom layer of hand-pressed rice in this one ends up bringing a good balance to the uni's creamy consistency. The rice bed also makes it terribly tempting to dip into the customary soy sauce/wasabi mixture, but before you go there, try the stuff on its own. This is, after all, the only way to truly appreciate the sweet (and slightly briny) flavor of Oysy's uni.

Bob San
It's a good idea to call ahead here on busy nights, as it's not uncommon for popular sushi spots like Bob San to sell out of uni. Should you find yourself in such a conundrum, opt instead for the chef's special tiger eyes, a serving of squid wrapped around smoked salmon, or go for another of his creations with the hamachi sashimi jalapeno, served with citrus soy dressing, $14.95 and $16.95 respectively. Not that these dishes (or any, for that matter) are proper substitutes for uni, but they'll keep your tongue and tummy pleased until you can pay a return visit. When you are in luck, and Bob San's uni is in high supply, try the restaurant's ika uni ae, a squid dish mixed with sea urchin and cucumber, $16.95. You can also appreciate the stuff in all its strange glory by ordering a few sashimi-style pieces ala carte, $3.50 each.

Some sushi lovers will tell you that uni is an aphrodisiac. Those are probably the same Japanese-cuisine fiends who are getting their fix from this sexy, swanky River North locale. Bring a date and park it at the sushi bar, where you can order the restaurant's thinly sliced raw squid and cucumbers in a creamy sea urchin sauce. For the main course, try the surf and turf with Japanese herb gratin lobster and seared filet mignon with a creamy (almost like a reduction) uni butter. Japonais also serves nigiri and sashimi-style uni.

This article was first published on Centerstage.
Photo: Uni shooters at Agami, Stacy Warden.

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