I haven't subscribed to cable in more than seven years. And I haven't owned a TV for about half that time. When I was a junkie though, I indulged cooking shows with the mindless zeal of an addict.
For whatever reason, a clip of Ming Tsai on a boat, stabbing a sea urchin with a diving knife and licking orange gick from the blade imprinted itself on my brain. He gushed about a creamy texture and the flavor of the sea. I was captivated. The only problem was I had no idea how to order the stuff.
My first encounter with sea urchin roe was at a questionable sushi restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. "You have to try this stuff, it's amazing," I lied to a friend before two orange tongues in seaweed cups showed up at the table. That day I learned something very important about uni: There may be no other ingredient whose freshness is more paramount. Seconds after placing the delicacy in our mouths we gagged in unison. I had to swallow mine whole. My friend went green.
"This shit is gross."
But I'm not one to give up on things. I continued to order uni and hurked my way through several restaurants before happening on one of D.C.'s nicer sushi joints and seeing the light. When uni is fresh, it's like something from a dream. The texture is still a little challenging for those not indoctrinated, but the flavor is amazing. A smooth and oceanic essence. A delicate funk. It's beautiful.
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And this is how, on a recent evening, I find myself sitting at the bar of downtown's Tei-An Soba House, like a Jewish kid on Christmas Eve, clutching chopsticks and impatiently awaiting "live sea urchin sashimi." It can't get any fresher than alive, right?
Sure enough, the upended animal, liberated from its gonads, arrives at the bar packed on ice, its spines still undulating in a slow, drunken postmortem dance. (See video of the dish in live-action on youtube.) And soon I'm basking in a lambent uni-glow (although I have to admit it's clouded by the $29 price of admission.)
A small cup of lettuce perched on top of the animal holds only 4 or 5 pieces of sashimi for my order. This is hardly a bargain and, ultimately, I think, more of a gimmick. But then a bearded diner down the bar orders the same dish and receives a greater return. His urchin, piled with roe, demonstrates that the order is a crap-shoot. Sea urchin, like new lovers, are a bit of a gamble; you don't know what you're dealing with till you've got them undone.
Quantity aside, Tei-An's uni delivers an interesting experience, adequately showcasing the qualities that sea urchin fans love. But the dish is a bit of a unicorn, only appearing on the menu at a variable price when market availability permits. According to manager Ayako Thompson, the item has only been offered twice.