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Need Uni Pep-talk

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I'll be taking my SO for a special omakase b-day dinner this Friday and I have a sneaking suspicion that uni will be one of the courses. I've had uni exactly once before - 8 years ago I tried it and had a really horrible experience. I have a pretty solid constitution, but the minute I put it in my mouth I had an involuntary physical reaction - my mouth got really weird and thought I'd lose my lunch at the table (I did not, but it took a lot of willpower) - almost like I'd put something poisonous in my mouth. I've never experienced that kind of reaction to any food before and it happened so fast that no taste even registered. One other person at the table (who had eaten uni previously) had a similar immediate reaction.

In the years since, I have come to believe that the uni I tried was bad and I am finally ready to give it another shot. Still, I am nervous.

The place we're going to is nice and people rave about the freshness of their seafood and the expertise of their chef. I figure that if I am going to like uni anywhere, it would be there.

Even so, I'd love a pep-talk. How many people love uni? Has anyone had a similar experience to mine with bad uni? I am really hoping that it was just bad uni I was served and the reaction doesn't repeat this time!

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  1. I first had uni at a sushi bar and had a reaction much like your own. Relax - it doesn't actually taste like that. It had been thawed too many days before. Later I ate it straight from the ocean at a sea urchin festival, and it was delicious. It was sweet and salty and firmer than I'd had at the sushi bar, which was skanky. However, if where you are going uses frozen uni, you may want to simply request omikase with no uni. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. You could even call ahead.

    1 Reply
    1. re: almansa

      Thanks! That is exactly what I was hoping to hear.

    2. Was it the texture that weirded you out? It is a strange squooshy sort of thing. I've had uni before and found it interesting, but I don't particularly love it.

      In my case, it's liver. I like the taste of it, but the texture will turn me off immediately if it's not cooked just so.

      2 Replies
      1. re: mogo

        I am not sure what it was. The whole thing happened so quickly - it was like my mouth started tingling and salivating and I felt like I was going to be quickly and violently ill. Honestly, I don't remember anything about the taste or texture - just my physical response.

        I don't usually get weirded out by textures or most tastes (I did eat salmon liver and that was really disgusting, but that flavor was so strong...).

        I figure that I don't have to love uni, but I want to give it another shot and at least get it down this time.

        1. re: akq

          I had uni for the first time about 8 months ago. I didn't like it much, although I didn't have the reaction you had. I had it again 3 months ago..same wonderful place...and I loved it. I did sprinkle just a bare tad of wasabi mixed with soya on it..just a drop.

      2. For me it's that third time's the charm rule that applies to so much: hated it the first time, didn't hate it but didn't get it, either, the second time, loved it the third time.

        So if this is your second, it hopefully won't be as bad as the first. Just think about the third time as you gulp.

        1. That is a wierd/scary reaction, that would definitely prohibit me from eating it again. Could you possibly have an allergy? Or perhaps the uni you had was not prepared properly.

          I really like uni. I too had it for the first time picked straight from the ocean, in front of me. So, I always feel like I am eating the ocean if that makes any sense. I love to dive and when I eat uni, it brings me back down to a dive. I'm such a romantic...

          But if you don't like it, don't eat it!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Mag454

            Yeah. I don't think it was an allergic reaction because I do have some food allergies and my reaction to those things is different. I think the uni was probably spoiled or something.

            I am totally jealous hearing about all of you who eat it straight out of the sea!

            I totally agree about not eating it if I don't like it, but since I can't even tell you what it tastes like, I want to give it another try.

          2. I too have had mixed results in my Uni eperiences, but what I can tell you is that I have a total dislike for uni that come sout of the box ata Japanese restaurants, but I LOVE fresh uni out of the shell. There's no comparison. Good luck.

            1. I don't think I will ever go out of my way to order Uni, but I can manage to eat it without feeling ill or grossed out. The first few times I just pretended to be a kid trying to gross my friends out by eating it. Sounds kinda dumb, but it worked well enough. One problem I have with Uni is that some places put way too much of it on the sushi. Another friend pretends it's oatmeal. Her imagination is better than mine.

              1. The first time I ever had uni, I had a similar reaction to you. Foul!!! I didn't get how so many people could consider it a delicacy. I've eaten many funky things in my life, but uni to me was disgusting! I wanted to spit it out! It was like I was eating dirty underwear (not that I've actually tried dirty underwear, mind you). I should let you know that the place I had the uni was a tiny sushi place on St. Mark's in the East Village, NY. I know there's a sizable Japanese community there now and sushi restaurants may be different, but I had it before those days. This was a restaurant catering to the young student crowd.

                I was turned off of uni for many years. Then when DH and I were dating, we went to a sushi restaurant. He's a huge fan of uni. I decided to try it again and had the most wonderful experience. I love it now, and I think I just had some really bad stuff before.

                That said, while I love it, I don't think it's to everybody's taste, even if you have good quality uni. I once had dinner with my MIL at a Japanese restaurant. She's pretty adventurous when it comes to eating. She loved my monkfish liver appetizer I ordered at dinner. Huge fan of caviar and offal, etc. But when she tried the uni, she made a face and said she wasn't too fond of it. DH happily finished her uni.

                You should definitely give it another go. It sounds like you had some bad uni during your first experience, as somebody else who's had it before thought it was also nasty. I'm kicking myself now for waiting so many years to try uni for the second time.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Miss Needle

                  Thanks! Excellent pep-talk. I don't mind if I don't care for something, but I don't like, as a rule, to judge something based on a bad example. I am actually getting quite excited about it now, hearing that others have had bad experiences followed by good ones. Even if after all this, I end up not caring for it.

                2. Jfood and Uni will never cross paths. Ain't happenin'.

                  Even at one of the best sushi restaurants in Tokyo jfood told the chef, "no Uni".

                  If they do serve jfood Uni, he knows he can always trade for eel. Jfood loves eel and many others love uni. sometimes he even gets 2 for 1.

                  1. Like the majority of people who responded, I think the uni that grossed you out was off. Uni is one of my favorite foods, but I've certainly had less-than-fabulous pieces - the taste hits you in the back of the throat, and it does seem wrong and poisonous (astringent might be the word I'm looking for). Smell it first - it should have a clean, saline smell with just a hint of "low tide." The texture might not appeal to you even if it's perfectly fresh and pristine, though. One of my friends can't stand it at all as sushi, but she loves it served it with crabmeat over pasta, or in a custard. Not that that will be much help in an omakase, but it's something to think about if you're trying to learn to like it.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: small h

                      I had a similar experience to yours. My first attempt at uni left me disgusted, completely off!

                      I avoided it at crap restaurants for the next few years. Finally, my pops convinced me to give it a try at a better place. I was hooked!

                      Living in Tokyo, i almost never turn down uni and i've really really really come to love it. Good luck!

                    2. I agree that you could have had bad uni or maybe an inferior previously frozen grade ? Freezing does tend to change the taste somewhat.

                      Eating uni is definately an acquired taste. As mentioned in another post it should have a salty ocean smell and should also have a nutty flavor.

                      I wish you luck on your next try!

                      1. I'm a former itamae, so I know uni. Here's the deal: fresh uni smells like an ocean breeze. It should smell clean, fresh, and just slightly salty. Old uni, OTOH, smells like a funky tidepool, and tastes worse.

                        1. akq, i never liked uni before this year, but after hearing about people raving about it on this board and in other places for quite a while, i ended up ordering a few items with uni as an ingredient at soto, a nyc restaurant known for its uni preparations. that was compleely transformative. i now count myself an uni fan.

                          the first time i had it was at a well liked (but frankly terrible) sushi restaurant right outside of boston and like a lot of other people, the flavor -- 'dirty underwear' is a good descriptor! -- made me gag. it was at a valentine's day meal and really, only the decorum of the situation prevented me from spitting the uni back out only my plate. like you, i have a solid constitution and will eat almost anything. i was not very impressed with the taste.

                          the uni at soto was *completely* different. it was sweet and smelled pleasantly of the sea, there was nothing objectionable at all about the texure, which fell somewhere between mousse and pudding in consistency. it was like a different food entirely.

                          i think the deal with uni is that it needs to be pristinely fresh to be good. even if it's just a little bit less than pristinely fresh, it tastes like dirty underwear. generally, it's only the really well respected sushi restaurants that can deliver the product this fresh.

                          since it does sound like you're going somewhere very good, ask the itamae if uni is in season (i think it is coming into season). if it is, try it. i really think you might like it; if it isn't, try again some other time.

                          1. UPDATE:
                            We went to dinner last Friday and it was wonderful, but no uni. I did notice the sushi chefs had big pretty urchins at the bar (not the box o' orange/yellow grossness) and kept expecting that the next course would contain some uni, but it never came. At the end of our meal I thought about ordering some, since I had been looking forward to giving it another go, but decided that I'd rather try something new at the beginning of a meal than at the end of an excellent one, just in case I didn't like it I didn't want to be left with that as my parting dish.

                            Anyway, we had such a lovely time and the food was so good that we'll go back there soon and I'll try the uni then. Thanks to everyone for those nice words of encouragement!

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: akq

                              So you got all worked up for nothing. Maybe it's for the best - anticipation adds to the experience.

                              That said, I'd avoid uni unless the chef is proud of it. I'd had the stuff a number of times and basically just choked it down. But a few years ago I ordered omakase at Kacho in Honolulu. Everybody else in the place was from Japan, but when the chef found out I had just flown in from California he really wanted me to try the uni because it was from Santa Barbara. ("Very fresh. You probably on same plane.") I was reluctant, but he was insistent, so I decided to give it a shot.

                              He gave detailed instructions. Don't chew, just move it around with the tongue and focus on the shifting flavors: an initial hit of ocean, followed by nuts, then butter, dissolving into sweetness. Pretty intense, and altogether wonderful.

                              Of course, I made a point of ordering uni the next time I went out for sushi. It was hugely disappointing. Since then I only eat the stuff when the chef is bragging on it. So far so good...

                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                I think most itamae will agree that, aside from uni harvested from certain locales in northern Japan, uni from Santa Barbara is the one to relish, particularly if you're in SoCal. As has been pointed out in various ways already, freshness is so critical...

                              2. re: akq

                                If straight uni sounds a bit intimidating, consider pairing it with something you already know you like. For example, instead of having the uni on top of sushi rice with nori wrapped (like a vertical "silo") around it, ask them to eliminate the nori and replace it with hamachi belly wrapped around the rice and uni. The luscious hamachi belly will help soften the blow of any foreign flavor or texture which might be associated with the uni (sort of like the difference between eating a slice of cake with layers of buttercream versus eating straight buttercream.) If you find that you like the uni in combination, then you can try the uni straight to savor the full experience. That said, I would agree that some uni (like the Santa Barbara) is better than others.

                              3. I have now had uni 3 times in my life. The first time was at the now defunct Union Pacific resto in NYC, Rocco De Spirito's fabulous restaurant in the days before his mind and soul was taken over by alien marketing 'ho's. These were super fresh uni paired with raw scallops and seasoned with mustard oil, one of his signature dishes. I still dream about these uni. So fresh, so wonderfully evocative of the sea. I was in heaven.

                                The second time I had uni was in a dubious Montreal sushi joint, now defunct. My hubbie tried it first, and had to force it down. I then tried a piece, and I actually spit it out. It tasted like feces. The waiter tried to tell me that it was because it was preserved, from a box, and not live uni. But nothing should taste that fetid.

                                I recently had uni again, this time in a West coast sushi spot. Again, it was from a box. Although it was better than the first sushi joint, at the end of the piece, I got a whiff of that fetid feces taste, like it was just starting to go off. It was funky, and not entirely pleasant, but at least this time I finished the piece.

                                I am beginning to feel that uni really is only worth eating fresh fresh fresh, and that I will probably avoid boxed uni from now on. I have had poor experiences with the boxed uni. I can't get over what a difference there is in quality.

                                Is the boxed uni supposed to taste that fetid? Is this the typical experience? Or have I just been unlucky twice running? If I hadn't had that transcendent experience with the fresh uni, I would be giving up completely on this experience. Please keep in mind, I am quite tolerant of strong tastes, so I don't think I am just being a wimp. I just don't believe that uni should taste like s@#*.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: moh

                                  I don't know if boxed uni *should* taste that way, but it always tastes and smells awful to me, too. I've give up on boxed at this point. I've only ever enjoyed it fresh fresh fresh. (Now's the season!)

                                  1. re: moh

                                    Ha ha. Your description of the uni tasting like feces sounds quite familiar to my description of uni tasting like dirty underwear in my post above. Have you tried feces in order to make that comparison? ; ) just kidding.

                                    I think there's a wide range of quality of uni. I've had fresh live uni twice that I thought wasn't so hot. First was from one of the best seafood stores in NYC. Second time was at a very reputable seafood restaurant in NYC. So I don't think it's necessarily a freshness thing (though I'm sure freshness does have something to do with the fetid taste of uni). For example, you can have a freshly killed Perdue chicken that will taste no where as good as a free-range pastured chicken that has been killed a couple of days ago. And I've had uni from a box at reputable sushi restaurants (or at least they were in a box at the sushi bar), from H-Mart (Korean market in NYC) and Mitsuwa (Japanese market), and none of them ever approached my first foul experience with uni. And the boxed uni was actually better than the live uni I've eaten. And yesterday I saw Eric Ripert on No Reservations make his uni caviar pasta using boxed uni. Even though he cooks it, it doesn't seem like he's a chef who would use inferior products.

                                    Maybe you just had a bad piece at the West coast sushi spot. Moh, I think you should give it another go. If you liked it at Union Pacific, I think you're not an uni-hater. I do think you just have a string of bad luck.

                                    1. re: Miss Needle

                                      Most of the uni you get at Yasuda are from a box. So the box doesn't mean the uni is bad. Just remember that there isn't a thing as cheap uni, so if the price seems to good to be true, then it is probably of low quality (of course high price doesn't necessarily mean good quality)

                                      1. re: Miss Needle

                                        "Ha ha. Your description of the uni tasting like feces sounds quite familiar to my description of uni tasting like dirty underwear in my post above. Have you tried feces in order to make that comparison? ; ) just kidding."

                                        Dear me! Is this a dare?

                                        It is true that I have not had the pleasure of trying dirty underwear to compare, but my overactive imagination is definitely firing on all cylinders! It is an astoundingly bad taste when it is really strong.

                                        I think you are right, I have had bad luck. I'll keep trying uni for sure, as I really loved that first taste! When good, it is a very sensual experience. Whoa, we could be making some really rude jokes about the wrong side of the underwear here...

                                        I will stick to reputable sushi places to try it again. I do wonder if the flavour I am tasting is because it has gone bad, or if it is just some odd variation due to diet or sea conditions that make some uni taste so terrible. I'm guessing Kobetobiko's point about there being no cheap uni is a good one. I suspect chances are better for good uni if you are willing to put up the bucks.