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Jan 22, 2008 08:54 AM

Uni at a Fish Store compared to Sushi Uni

Hi. I was at Citarella's (upscale fish store in NYC) the the other day and picked up some uni -- first time buying it in a store. They cut it and cleaned it for me and gave it to me on a bed of ice to take home. The taste was a bit different than what I had at Japanese restaurants -- more briny and not as delicious (IMO). Do they prepare the uni that you get at sushi places? Or did we just end up not getting the best uni?

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  1. I don't really know the answer to this question, I do think that uni in most restaurants come in those trays (they're so uniform in appearance that some special handling seems necessary). I have had uni fresh from the shell at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and thought it was great, maybe better than in sushi, but perhaps I was seduced my the whole scene. I think it's great that you have fresh uni available in local fish stores and that you went ahead and tried some.

    1. It sounds as if you did not get the best in fresh uni, but then again, uni does vary from one sushi place to another.

      1. My husband often buys some the way you did at Citarella and he says he thinks the sea urchins that we get at Japanese restaurants are different - "more meaty". I don't eat it myself, but I also know that some days he thinks the ones at Citarella are better than other days.

        1. Thanks to all for the responses. Perhaps the best uni gets snatched up by the sushi restaurants. Citarella's products are usually pretty high quality -- however, they don't really sell sushi-ready items. And I only get uni from very higher end Japanese restaurants as I learned the hard way what eating uni was like from a low end joint.

          MMRuth, you're right about the Citarella's uni not being very meaty. As they were definitely cheaper at Citarella than getting them at a sushi restaurant, I guess I can try again and see.

          10 Replies
          1. re: Miss Needle

            I am wondering, do you get fresh uni in the restaurants you are eating in? I assume that because you are in NYC, you do. But I had a disturbing experience once in Montreal. Please note that I have not often had uni. I had fresh uni once at Union Pacific (now sadly defunct) in that glorious uni/scallop in mustard oil appetizer. I was in heaven. Then I ordered some uni sushi at a place in Montreal. The piece of uni was frankly inedible and must have been off, it tasted rotten. I told the waitress that the uni was off, and se claimed it was fine. She said "well if you've never had uni before, perhaps you just aren't used to it". To which I replied I have had it before, and this was definitely off. She then said, "oh well you've had it fresh, this is canned, perhaps you just aren't used to the difference". Well, even if that is true, I still think this uni was off. It tasted like it was putrified. The restaurant is no longer in business, needless to say.

            But now I am afraid to order uni. I saw the can that they were talking about, and I really am uninterested in trying canned uni again. But is this a typical practice? Or would a "real" sushi joint refuse to sell canned uni? The fresh uni experience was out of this world, and if I knew that I could repeat that, I would in a heart beat.

            1. re: moh

              Wow! I've never seen canned uni before. I've seen uni being sold for sushi before, though I haven't purchased it. It was definitely not in a can. And I'll bet that a restaurant like Union Pacific (sadly I never got to go) used fresh uni,

              Yeah, the first time I had uni, I had it in a budget Japanese joint on St. Marks Place in NYC (mostly cheap restaurants cateirng to NYU students). It was absolutely vile and turned me off of uni for years. I tried it again a few years later at a better Japanese place -- delicious! So do try again. I'm so glad that I did.

              1. re: Miss Needle

                At Union Pacific, I saw them bringing in the Uni, so I am pretty sure it was fresh.

                Maybe canned uni is that vile? I'm almost tempted to buy a can to see.

                I am beginning to think that uni is an item that one should only eat in very reputable (and likely very expensive) places.

                1. re: moh

                  My husband sometimes gets it at the "cheaper" sushi place that we go to most weeks, and while he says it is fine, it is not the bliss for him that great uni is at a better place.

              2. re: moh

                The first time I had uni, in Berkeley, it was old and really funky. I think it ages, sort of like cheese. That waitress was being dishonest but that sort of behavior isn't rare. I'd be surprised to learn that many restaurants buy whole sea urchins and cut out the roe, I think most places get trays of uni, they're sort of beautiful really:


                Because the uni is so clean and uniform in the trays I wonder if the uni is harvested and stored in some way (in water?) before being placed in a tray, maybe this treatment accounts for the differences between a sushi restaurant and straight from the shell?

                1. re: steinpilz

                  Now that you mention it, I seem to think that I may have read something about it being treated - maybe some sushi experts will chime in for us!

                  1. re: steinpilz

                    Love those pictures, thanks for the links and thanks for the info.

                    1. re: steinpilz

                      ill repeat it. gorgeous pictures. actually made my mouth water and my stomach gurgle. thank you, steinpilz!

                      1. re: tinymango

                        Thanks. I'll regularly surf the Flickr food sections for just those reasons. The travel pics there are also a great distraction.

                      2. re: steinpilz

                        Great pics! Thanks for taking time to find, upload, etc.

                  2. Needle- a quick guide to uni is don't buy it from someone you don't trust. I like Citarella's before I moved to Hawaii that was one of my best fish spots. I sell Hawaiian fish to top restaurants all over the world and across the USA and uni can very between sushi places because of where it was harvested at. The colder the water the better the uni. I carry about ten different uni trays and whole uni the best comes out of Main and Canada and then there is all ways Catalina for the ok stuff and thats what you get at most sushi place. the can stuff is for pasta sauce any sushi place selling that should be shut down fast. well any more fish questions feel freee to ask.

                    11 Replies
                    1. re: chefaron

                      Thanks! I'd read that Maine uni is highly prized in Japan, but didn't realize that most places in the US have uni from California. Do you know if the uni in the trays is treated in some way, held/cleaned in water or some other solution after harvesting from the shells?

                      1. re: steinpilz

                        I'm assuming the uni in many Japanese restaurants is frozen. The last time I was in a sushi place (and a good one) I watched the chef slice open a frozen pack, and microwave it to get it ready for serving.

                        1. re: brendastarlet

                          Im not knocking your choice in restaurants but if its frozen its not nearly as good as the fresh. As a chef and seafood guy I hate to say it but frozen is ok when it comes to seafood. the thing is it should be FAS ( frozen at sea). I don't think it is treated in any way or is brined but then again I buy it from 3000-6000 miles away so i don't see what they do to it i will ask my farmers next time and reply here. I know when I get the ones out of the ocean here I just pop it open and eat from the shell it was great!!!! Aloha Aron

                          1. re: chefaron

                            Fresh uni (as in right from the shell) will vary in texture/flavor from one speciment to another which is normal. Generaly spekaing uni from colder waters (BC and up) will tend to be firmer and have "cleaner" flavors. The stuff you buy in trays has been "processed" by going through a number of washing/brining steps to firm it up and remove the membranes/veins, etc. Some places may use "other" firming agents to get the texture up. Any sushi joint using frozen unit is not top notch....

                            1. re: Pollo

                              Yeah, I was wondering whether the sushi uni was processed in someway. The uni from the fish store was a bit different in texture than the ones I get at sushi restaurants.

                      2. re: chefaron

                        Thanks. Interesting about the cold water. It seems that most fish I prefer come from cold water as opposed to warm -- eg. Maine lobster versus Carribean lobster.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          Cold water has more nutrients....hence more "life" per volume....

                        2. re: chefaron

                          Beg to differ. According to J. Steingarden, SoCal red sea urchin rom the San Diego area is the most expensive (next to white uni from Hokkaido) uni at Tsukiji. His personal taste testing indicates that quality goes down as you move north, though he makes no mention of uni from BC. He reports that Japanese fish purveyors on the East Coast call it the best in the world.

                          His article "Prickly Pleasures" in _It Must Have Been Something I Ate_ is full of info about uni processing and grading.

                          More nutrients in colder water is irrelevant as sea urchins are not filter feeders. The taste and quality of the kelp that they digest is the key to quality.

                          Certainly, the best I have ever eaten is uni taken from a San Diego urchin that was alive just minutes before. See attached photo:


                          1. re: Ed Dibble

                            There is more (amount) and variety of kelp in cold water areas so that make a difference. San Diego red urchin might be the "best" from CA to the local sushi chefs and I did have it on many ocasions but it's not as good as the stuff from BC. The uni you get from the areas around Queen Charlotte Islands is top notch. My father in law has a sea urchin quota (last 20+ years) so I had uni "ad nosium"....all his harvest goes airfreight straigt to Japan...fresh...never frozen.

                            1. re: Pollo

                              Pic is to say nothing else "mouth watering". Thanks for the info too!