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Is sea urchin supposed to taste like poison?

I was at the Grand Central Oyster Bar a couple of years ago. They had advertised "sea urchin just in", so we're thinking it should be something special, plus at $2 each seemed dirt cheap. So we order two to try.
I really like all types of seafood, raw or cooked. I also see Bourdain eating urchin on the boat, just plucked from the sea and lovin it...
So the waitress brings the two urchins on the half shell. They're filled with what looks like muddy water and almost no substance. My buddy and I scoop a bit out with the small spoons.
"Where'd they drag this out from, the Hudson?" Looked like mud-puddle water, but tasted like mercury-infused peroxide. Egad.
OK, maybe I don't like NYC urchins (I'm joking and assume they're taken from good waters).

Fast forward to last week and I'm in a Greek restaurant with the wife. I see a couple of urchins on ice in their fish display. I want to give them another try and order one. Not quite as muddy, and more 'substance', but it tasted WORSE than I remembered.

Should it look like dirt and taste like poison? Is sea urchin an acquired taste, or am I trying the wrong type?

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  1. It should taste briny and slightly sweet

    2 Replies
    1. re: withaph

      You see, thats what I would think. Something oysterish, briny-wise. Textural maybe like fresh smelt roe, but thats definitely NOT what I got.

      As for the mercury-infused peroxide, I was just trying to figure out a comparison.

      The urchin wasn't spoiled per se, like rotting fish. Neither did it have the chlorine smell of spoiled shellfish.
      Actually it didn't have much odor at all, LIKE a fresh oyster.

      But the taste!
      Bitter and noxious, tasting like the fumes when torching steel.
      Mercury-infused peroxide was the best I could come up with...

      I'll keep my mind open and try until I find the right stuff!

      1. re: porker

        There's huge difference between really fresh sea urchin (i.e. was alive in until shucked a few seconds ago) and fresh sea urchin (shucked a couple of hours ago). It's one of those things where the quality can change very dramatically very quickly, and very small differences in freshness/sourcing can sometimes make a big difference in taste. Great ones aren't always easy to find, but if you like it, it can be worth the effort.

    2. I'm just wondering how you know what mercury-infused peroxide tastes like and how you lived to tell...

      1. Or maybe you just don't care for the flavor. I've had good sea urchin and it's just not a taste I enjoy, and I eat all kinds of seafood. 3rd time's the charm...or not.

        1. At its best, sea urchin starts with an intense hit of fresh brine, followed buttery sweetness, which gives way to nuttiness. At its worst, it tastes like what you describe.

          1. Sea urchin to me has a slightly sweet almost peanut-buttery flavor. Seriously good stuff. It shouldn't taste like any kind of peroxide -- sounds like these were off.

            The only things you should eat in a sea urchin are the orange-yellow "roe" (actually the gonads), nothing that is watery or muddy...

            1 Reply
            1. re: daveinmd

              I agree with your description of urchin. I also mentioned a custard type consistancy and taste that is slightly sweet. and it should have an orangish color to it.

            2. I have eaten a few and stepped on many. All of 'em made a bad impression.

              1 Reply
              1. To me sea urchin tastes quite a bit like lobster tomalley.

                1 Reply
                1. re: sbp

                  I love tomalley...this wasn't it...

                2. What in the world does poison taste like? Seriously.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: aces551

                    Bitter and noxious, tasting like the fumes when torching steel.

                    or did you not read through the post?

                    1. re: porker

                      Sorry, I am not familiar with what fumes when torching steel is like, at all. Wasn't trying to be a smart a**. Well, maybe a little...

                      By the way, I read your profile, and was happily surprised that there is someone else out there that appreciates the fine flavors of day-old spaghetti fried in a non-stick pan until slightly crispy. I thought I was the only one who enjoyed that particular treat.
                      Comfort food, indeed!

                      In fact, I could use some right now...

                      1. re: aces551

                        I spend a bit of time on construction sites. When they're using a torch (and they love using the torch), its usually to cut through steel. If you're far enough away, the odor is slightly offensive, kinda like the aroma of burning hair is offensive.
                        The closer you are the worse it is.

                        Had a guy look over the side a few weeks ago, right smack above where they were using a plasma torch, and got a snout full of fumes. His lung collapsed (spontaneous pneumothorax), was brought to the hospital, had the abdomen pierced to the lung, treated, and a couple of days off.

                        It smells pretty bad.

                        The wife likes day-old spaghetti as well, but she prefers it just heated and sauced just so. Me? Fry on high until crispy (can't over-sauce as it hinders the crispiness effect), cut a bit and mix up, crisp again, and flip, repeat.
                        Same with lasagna!

                        1. re: porker

                          Yep, has to be cut up in the pan with the spatula, fried until almost crispy.
                          I put the sauce in the pan first, get that spittingly hot, add noodles, mix it all up, chop it up, fry the heck out of it until it's almost "dry", serve.
                          How funny.

                  2. Agree with other posters, good sea urchin is creamy in texture, sweet and custardy and nice and briny, although not as sharp as some types of oysters. However, uni (like the kind that comes in the little plastic containers pre separated (or even the wooden box) does not even come close, it's vaguely bitter and not fresh smelling at all.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: bdachow

                      What distinction are you making between sea urchin and uni? They are the English and Japanese terms for the same thing.

                      1. re: small h

                        Sorry, no distinction, I use the terms interchangeably.

                    2. Yaugh. Mercury infused peroxide is a good description. The first time I ever had it at a sushi joint in Boston I almost hurled all over the table. (This was on Valentine's Day, incidentally. Not a romantic date food.) Luckily, I tried again years and years later and discovered that when it's very fresh, uni is delicious: sweet, without any noxious odors or flavors at all, barely "fishy", even.

                      If you're in NYC often, do try to get to Soto. It's one of the only places in NYC where I really trust them to get it right consistently. (Even otherwise very good restaurants often seem to serve bad uni.) Sho Shaun Hergatt currently has a great crab appetizer garnished with very small slivers of very fresh, sweet Santa Barbara uni -- but the uni's not the centerpiece. Yasuda has it on the menu, often, and it might be good this time of year, but I've found it to be of variable quality, there.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: cimui

                        We recently had one of those otherwordly sea urchin experiences at Eleven Madison Park in NYC - a beautiful piece of uni in this gorgeous creamy sauce. When sea urchin is good, there is nothing like it. It is so hard to pinpoint the taste of uni - it is an ethereal experience, it is like sea foam caressing your tongue, creamy and sweet and feathery. And I would agree with the poster who commented that no two sea urchins taste alike, just as there are no two identical snowflakes.

                        When sea urchin is bad, it is rather like eating feces, or what I would imagine it would be like eating feces. Please, no posts about how I know what feces taste like. But I keep on trying, even when I have a bad experience several times in a row, because it is so special when it is good.

                        I am running about 50:50 in good/bad uni experiences. Oddly enough, all my good uni experiences have been in NYC. I think freshness is key, and you need to have a large and rich enough population to support a market for these kind of items. There are only a few places that can support this market, so NYC is a good bet for trying the stuff. I've given up on uni in Montreal. I suspect uni in Japan is a good bet.

                        1. re: moh

                          Hi moh,
                          As you can read I'm running 0 for 2. The first in NYC, the second here at Faros. I don't want to detract from Faros, in fact they didn't charge me for the urchin.
                          I'll seek it out next time in NYC.

                          1. re: moh

                            I think I might enjoy reading your description of uni almost as much as I enjoy eating it, moh. That's positively poetic.

                            Did you ever find a good frozen uni for sale, by the way? I think I remember you looking for it a while back.

                        2. everything you mention about the flavours you tasted (torched steel and all) are very vivid and very indicative of bad sea urchin.

                          one of my recent and best experiences with uni offered a light custardy texture with fruity coconut tones and a slight pleasant bitterness with a touch of brine but really quite minimal. most of the uni i've had though are halfway between what you describe and what i've just described and for the most part are strong in ammonia. almost enough to swear off of the stuff but when you get a good piece the search does not feel as if it is in vain.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: pinstripeprincess

                            Well pinstripeprincess, your response and that of others keep the flame alive.
                            I intrinsically believe uni is good and think I just haven't come across it yet.

                            Now that I really think about it, I have had uni in a sushi joint (although through the fog of time and alcohol cannot pinpoint), pulled out of a plastic punch-out. As bdachow points out, quite tasteless and not indicative of the true taste of sea urchin. I just felt that eating the real deal, outta the shell would be an epiphany...well obviously, not yet.

                            Actually reminds me of a sorry tale of sorts...
                            I've had many people come through the revolving doors of my restaurant eployment doors, especially in the non-life-experienced-16-21-year-old bracket. Come September, oysters were always on the special board. When shucking, I'd come across the occasional hold-your breath-cause-this-molluscs-been-dead-awhile, and toss it aside. Well, my all-of-17-year-old (how come I'm using dashes all of a sudden) chicken guy says "how can anyone eat OYSTERS, they smell like $hit?!?"
                            "Whaddya mean they smell?"
                            "Lookit those there", pointing to the garbage, "I can smell them from here".
                            "THOSE?...they're in the garbage 'cause they ARE rotten...here smell this", I open a fresh one.
                            "It don't smell like anything."
                            "Exactly, thats a good one. The ones I threw out are bad, not to be served to customers."
                            "Oh, I thought all oysters smelled like that."


                            1. re: porker

                              You may be amused to know that your post caused me to have a very vivid dream of eating uni just as you described it. (thanks a lot!) I love it - have had some that wasn't quite up to snuff - but never as off as you evidently encountered. The good stuff has a slight melony, cucumbery note in my experience, but really tastes like or feels in your mouth like nothing else on earth.

                              1. re: porker

                                Exactly! You had me rolling on the floor with that tale.

                                1. re: porker

                                  I've had the cheap little sea urchin you mention at the GC Oyster Bar. They are not served raw, but I believe steamed or cooked in the shell in some manner. They are lousy. There are many types of sea urchin and those are just one of them. Whether they are served directly from the shell or not has no bearing on their quality. The wooden or plastic trays of harvested uni are actually how sushi shops receive it from the market. This too has no bearing on quality. It is the particular type of uni, the freshness, and the handling that will affect quality.

                              2. I fell asleep with the TV on last night, on the PBS Create channel, which has a lot of food programs. SOMEBODY, and I think it was Eric Ripert, said that no matter how many sea urchins you eat, no two will taste the same. He's certainly an expert when it comes to seafood so perhaps they ARE the oceanic equivalent of snowflakes. I've never been tempted to try them.

                                1. Sea urchin is seasonal like so many things. The season is now, so it's a good time to try again.

                                  1. To chime in on what others said, good uni tastes wonderful. I've never had bad sea urchin, just like I've never had bad oysters, because I always sniff it before I eat it and if it doesn't pass the sniff test it stays on the plate. On the other hand, I've had not-great uni enough times that I don't order it just anywhere. Although at a busy place, if they advertise it just in, I'd definitely order it.

                                    1. I'd be curious as to what color were the sea urchin (gonads) you had, especially before steamiing, as well as their origins. The color also reflects what kind of kelp the urchins feasted on before being harvested and depending on biological and geographical factors, can have varying tastes. The ugliest specimen I've had was from Alaska, in Seattle, and it was during the summer (off season) which had a rather bitter taste, but somehow soy sauce and wasabi made it sweeter. The worst? A previously frozen specimen in a tray from Canada. Somehow the freezing made the meat muscular and just a hint of chewy.

                                      Then there's that black gooey liquid inside the urchin itself which is typically not consumed, but perhaps you got served that or the gonad lobes itself mixed in with it.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: K K

                                        The GCOB urchins were primarily grey. What bits of substance we did find was grey as well.
                                        The urchin I had the other week was apparently fresh, grabbed from the display and opened to order (OK, being on the ice display doesn't guarantee freshness, but it should at least be an indicator).
                                        The substance (gonads) were a bright yellow/orange. Thats when I figured it would be tasty, but nope, noxious and bitter beyond description.
                                        As I mentioned, they had no offending odor like a bad clam or oyster - they had practically no smell, again another indicator that it should be good...

                                        I will continue my haphazard search.

                                      2. I have probably eaten hundreds of sea urchin, but ONLY while sitting in a sailboat and they are fresh from the diver's bag. I would never eat an urchin that has been out of its fresh live shell for more than a few minutes. Their flavor is very fragile.

                                        That said, what sea urchins taste like depends entirely on what they've been eating. They are herbivores (as far as I know; at least I've never opened one and found a shrimp or an oyster inside). My favorite place to eat them is in or near the giant kelp beds off of La Jolla, California.

                                        To eat a fresh urchin, first you use tin snips or wire cutters to cut out the beak, which is in the center of the underside. Discard it, then rinse out the inside of the urchin, preferably with sea water. inside the ball-like shell are "lens shaped" bands of orange-ish "matter" arranged symmetrically inside the shell. Use a spoon to get it out and eat it. It requires no seasoning.

                                        It's rather like eating a bowl of fresh apricots. Some will be incredibly sweet, making the next one you eat pale by comparison. But there are no bad ones. One time I had an urchin that had been feasting on the sweetest most spring flower like kelp in the ocean, and that sea urchin lives vibrantly in my memory to this day. I've eaten dozens and dozens since looking for another that tastes as good. I'm still searching. Or will, if I ever get back to an ocean. I refuse to order urchin in a sushi bar or anyplace else. If you find a fish market where you can get fresh live urchins, give 'em a try.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: Caroline1

                                          Great description of ultimate sea urchin flavor. At home, I have sometimes put fresh sea urchin into an avocado half, in the depression left when the pit is removed. This is one of the great pairings for uni, but the best is that of fresh "yuba" (soy milk skin) and sea urchin, with a very tiny drizzle of good soy sauce. This is a standard dish at my local sake specialty bar.

                                          1. re: Tripeler

                                            Oh my goodness, the soy milk skin and uni combinationsounds out of this world.

                                          2. re: Caroline1

                                            OMG that sounds delicious Caroline! Thanks for that reverie.... If sold in a fishmonger in its shell, not yet opened, I think it's great. That is how a raw bar should be dealing with sea urchin as well.

                                          3. Agree with you, buddy, although I always thought the flavour reminded me of how urine smells. My Chinese mother-in-law used to make it for us, and after the first few tries, I just passed on it. But she lived in Windsor, Ontario (across the river from Detroit), so the likelihood of her getting anything fresh is pretty low.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: FrankD

                                              From a general gathering of opinions posted here,... it appears that sea urchin ISN'T fit to eat. I grew up on the Oregon coast. We ate everything that swam, crawled the ocean floor, and clung to the rocks. EXCEPT sea urchin. My dad had a great laugh when I tried it a couple times... freshly plucked from the Pacific intertidal zones. Sea urchin AIN'T fit to eat,...even if fresh! An acquired taste, in me book.....

                                            2. Sea urchin is yummy, but the Grand Central Oyster Bar has a mixed reputation. Not everything is equally good or equally fresh. If you live in NYC, try going to Agata Valentina or Citarellas, and ask the fishmonger if they have fresh sea urchin that day. Ask them to open some for you and they'll put them on ice, etc. Take home a dozen. Have with vodka. I would say take home two dozen but see how you like them. Sitting around in their open shells is not perhaps a good sign.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: omnidora

                                                Talk about reveries, two dozen perfect quality sea urchins and vodka sounds like a perfect dream to me.