Sea urchin tray at Samuels and Sons
Sea urchin tray at Samuels and Sons Credit: Laura Hayes

There’s something inherently sexy about sea urchin, also known by its Japanese moniker “uni.” In the same way a runny egg yolk allowed to flow like lava can make an onlooker randy, uni is captivating with its Tuscan sun color, tongue-like texture, and an exoticism that photographs well and eats even better.

No one is a bigger urchin fanboy than Chef Johnny Spero, who set his alarm for 5 a.m. to Amtrak it to Samuels and Sons Seafood in Philadelphia. His mission? To get some face time with his Tokyo-born sales rep Shinobu Habauchi and select which species of uni he’ll prominently feature when his restaurant Reverie opens in Georgetown. The morning was like a football combine, but Spero was the coach and the players were briny, spiny sea creatures. 

He tested a few varieties, which taste drastically different depending on whether they come from the East Coast (Maine), West Coast (Santa Barbara or Seattle), South America, or Japan. Though Habauchi says its name translates to “horseshit” in Japanese, the most coveted urchin is typically the bafun from Hokkaido, Japan. Unlike others that are larger, firmer, and carry more funk, these are small, sweet, and melt in your mouth.

These so-called “tongues,” which are excavated from the spiky shells, are actually the animal’s gonads, and fishing them out can feel a little like changing a dirty diaper. No how-to video makes it easy enough to attempt after purchasing a live one. Fortunately, by the time uni makes its way to a restaurant the work is done, the tongues are standing at attention in neat, ready-to-eat rows on a wood tray.

While the texture is akin to fish frozen yogurt, the precise flavor profile of urchin is hard to pin down. Spero says uni’s minerality can make it taste like putting a penny under your tongue, while Chef Josh Hermias of minibar by José Andrés and barmini suggests, much like a sommelier, that it has notes of tanned leather. And Chef Katsuya Fukushima of Daikaya says, “It’s kind of like eating the ocean.” 

Fukushima grew up eating uni because his mother is from Miyako-jima in Japan. He recalls visiting the island where it was everywhere. “My mom would grab sea urchin and put it in the sand near the campfire and let it cook,” he says. “Then she’d crack it open, pull it out, and feed it to me.” Fukushima’s father, on the other hand, is half Japanese but won’t touch it. “That’s garbage, that’s for poor people,” Fukushima remembers his father saying. 

Fukushima’s business partner at Daikaya, Daisuke Utagawa—who separately owns Sushiko in Chevy Chase—says that when his grandmother was a kid on the Izu peninsula in Japan, she would get scolded for plucking urchins from the water and keeping them as pets. “When she was a kid, only the poorest people ate uni because they didn’t have anything else to eat,” Utagawa explains. “It’s always the peasants who eat well, don’t they?” 

Today, urchin is still largely thought of as a delicacy unique to high-end sushi restaurants because it can get pricy, but that’s changing at a cheetah’s pace. Eager chefs of all genres are racing to include it in innovative ways on their menus, and uni’s built a bit of a cult following on social media. 

A Tuesday afternoon query reveals that 221,301 people are currently Instagramming pictures of #SeaUrchin. That’s roughly the size of Richmond, Virginia, according to 2015 population estimates. While that’s nothing compared to #tacos at 4.2 million people, it’s something, and both restaurateurs and fish wholesalers can confirm there’s heightened interest.

“There’s more and more people using it all of the time—not just sushi bars,” says Glenn Casten. The fishmonger at ProFish in Ivy City says they used to sell a dozen trays a month and now they sell a couple dozen trays a week. Joe Lasprogata, the vice president of new product development at Samuels and Sons, echoes Casten. “I’ve been handling uni for 20 years, and I can say there’s been an uptick. Previously it was just sushi restaurants, now it’s everywhere,” he says.

Lasprogata adds that the craze began when Mediterranean restaurants started serving dishes featuring raw fish. “I’m surprised how long it took,” he says. “In the late 1980s, you’d see an influx of sushi bars primarily in New York and California, but it took so long for the crudo to show up. It’s only been the last eight or nine years.”

In fact, Spero first discovered uni at a Mediterranean restaurant. He was working alongside Chef Johnny Monis at Komi, where one of the highlights was pasta slathered in uni and tomato sauce topped with a whole tongue. “That was the first time I ever worked at a place with trays of uni coming in,” Spero says. “That’s where I fell in love with it.”

Uni and pasta are common bedfellows. Locally, Chef Robert Wiedmaier plates uni with shrimp tagliatelle, uni butter, and pesto coulis. Chef Bill Williamson of Birch & Barley smokes his uni before swirling it into squid ink spaghetti with clams, chilies, and leeks. Chef John Melfi serves house-made linguine at The Oval Room with grilled shrimp, chilies, Pecorino cheese, and sea urchin emulsion. And one of Osteria Morini’s classic dishes calls for bucatini, sea urchin, crab, tomato, and basil.

Other non-Japanese restaurants serving urchin in the District include Conosci, where Chef George Rodrigues makes uni custard and serves it with crab cream espuma, lobster roe, and citrus zest. Whaley’s includes uni dressed in lemon vinaigrette on its seafood towers, and Fiola Mare marries it with foie gras, ginger, and rhubarb consommé. 

At the two-star Michelin restaurant minibar, Hermias uses Hokkaido uni in two preparations. One is dubbed “Ceviche a la Indiana Jones” because the uni-topped vinegared fish comes in a rambutan (a hairy red tropical fruit) that Hermias says “looks like that scene from Temple of Doom.” 

At the more casual but still baller barmini, guests can try Wagyu beef tartare bound with uni cream and served with steamed buns. It’s the number one selling bar snack. Hermias doesn’t have any quantifiable metrics but says uni is ubiquitous now.

Chef Ryan Ratino of Ripple is no longer surprised to see uni at Japanese, Italian, or French restaurants. “It’s hitting that Brussels sprouts phase where everybody has it on their menu,” he says. Ratino just debuted a sandwich on the grilled cheese bar menu that he hopes will hook first-time uni eaters. 

He bakes brioche with rendered pork fat and stuffs it with whipped ’Nduja (a spicy Calabrian sausage whipped with soft lardo) and a nutty cheese called Ewephoria. He then toasts it and tops it with pickled onions and as many uni tongues that will fit for $13 (a good value given that a single piece of nigiri sushi goes for $8-$10 at Sushiko). The pressed sandwich is also on the dining room menu as a snack. “It’s a little odd, but we hope we get some adventurous eaters,” Ratino says.

That’s no guarantee, as Chef Fukushima found out when he tried to serve a croissant brushed with uni butter on Daikaya’s brunch menu. “It didn’t sell as much as I hoped because it’s not a sushi restaurant,” he explains. When diners head to sushi bars, they’re self-selecting as individuals eager to try all (or most) fish in the sea.

Spero is similarly finding that not everyone is game just yet. “It’s hard enough to get people to eat a couple different pieces of it,” he says. He ordered his go-to hangover cure at Jaleo the night after his wedding—cristal bread topped with butter and sea urchin—but no one helped him eat it. “I’m not sure it’s quite there yet where chefs can throw it on everything assuming people will eat it,” he says.

Perhaps there’s no better example of chefs betting on the fact that we’ve reached peak uni than the menu at Fish by José Andrés inside the MGM National Harbor, where diners can choose to add uni to their kale salad, much like adding chicken or shrimp. 

So what do some of the city’s longtime Japanese chefs and restaurateurs think of uni’s burgeoning popularity among young guns? 

“People can do whatever they want,” says Utagawa, who prefers his uni au natural. “For me the beautiful part is the subtle complexity and depth, so if you mix it up with a whole bunch of other things that taste strong, the uni taste goes away.” Urchin is served liberally on the tasting menu at Utagawa’s restaurant Kōbō by Sushiko in simple preparations like house-made tofu with Hokkaido sea urchin.

Though Utagawa has embraced some new applications, as he admits to liking an uni-topped pizza in Sicily. “I like cooks who understand the ingredients and how to bring out their inner beauty,” he says.

Fukushima, who likens it to caviar, agrees. “I’m always for creativity, as long as it makes sense,” he says. “It’s such a unique ingredient.”

Sea urchin tray at Samuels and Sons

Uni brioche at Ripple