Appetite: Uni dreams

Exploring sea urchin creativity at three local restaurants

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Benu's sea urchin atop risotto
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY VIRGINIA MILLER

Slick, tongue-like uni, or sea urchin (part of the same clan as sand dollars and sea cucumbers), earned its urchin moniker from a Middle English term for hedgehog due to their similar spiny exterior. Uni is an acquired taste. My adventurous palate took a couple years to come around to appreciating its briny richness (to be fair, the initial uni I tried was less than fresh, tasting more like a stale tidepool - yes, it matters where you have it). Three upscale dining destinations have been sourcing immaculate uni and giving it the inventive treatment.

FIFTH FLOOR’s Mendocino uni flan -- With executive chef David Bazirgan recently on board at Fifth Floor, there’s a number of noteworthy new dishes, particularly Mendocino uni flan ($16). It arrives unceremoniously, a little bowl of foam. Dig into that “saffron air” and underneath lies lush Dungeness crab fondue and silky uni flan. Heightened by aged Kaffir lime and Sichuan pepper, you’ll be dreaming about it all week.

COMMONWEALTH’s seah urchin with sweet potato tempura -- Commonwealth just gets better and better. Chef Jason Fox shines with a progressive menu that borders on the experimental and molecular, yet remains ever satisfying. Garden-fresh chrysanthemum leaves and shiso illuminate Fox’s current menu offering of sea urchin ($15) with the comforting contrast of sweet potato tempura, while yuzu kosho adds a gentle tart.

BENU’s risotto topped with sea urchin -- Pricey, austere Benu is a gourmand’s dream, especially when it comes to decadent dishes like Chef Corey Lee’s risotto ($28). Creamy, laden with butternut squash, celery and black truffle, dollops of sea urchin dot the dish as its crowning glory.

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