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Escolar and Uni at Aka Sushi

Sea snail up front, uni in the back.
Sea snail up front, uni in the back.
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt

Every time I mention enjoying a particular sushi restaurant, a commenter or two will chime in to tell me that I'm a blithering idiot for not enjoying Aka Sushi more. (Sometimes that's an exaggeration, but not usually.) This also used to happen with Sushi King until I went over there one day, enjoyed my meal and wrote about it.

I finally made it over to Aka Sushi (2390 West Alabama, 713-807-7875), the sister restaurant to the original Aka on Eldridge. First of all, the service was quite enjoyable. As it turns out, my waiter, Tony, seems to be a bit of a favorite on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon. I didn't know this going in; I just knew that I liked him from the get-go. He reminded me of Agador Spartacus from The Birdcage (which I sincerely hope isn't viewed as an insult; I love me some Hank Azaria).

"Finish all your sake, honey!" he would trill gleefully as he came by the table to check on me throughout the evening. I enjoyed Tony, the food, the sake and the music at Aka so much, I could have stayed cozy in my little booth -- head mostly in my book and stuffing myself silly with fish -- all night long.

I make chopstick stands with the wrappers when I'm fidgety. What?
I make chopstick stands with the wrappers when I'm fidgety. What?

"Do you have any questions about the menu?" he asked after I had gotten my sake.

"Just one: Do you still have uni tonight?" I pointed to the specials board at the entrance.

"Oh yes!" His eyes lit up. "Just flown in today!" I doubted the veracity of that claim, considering I was dining on New Year's Day, but that wasn't going to stop me ordering some. I ordered the sea snail, too, for good measure; it was also on special and I couldn't recall ever having any sea snail.

The uni came as a two-piece cut roll that was made rather clumsily, but I suppose that's what you get for $10. It's fascinating that the Japanese demand for sea urchin roe -- that's the soft, orange part that's eaten as uni -- turned it into a luxury item over there, which in turn made it a luxury item in the United States over the past decade. The U.S. originally viewed sea urchins as pests, until Japan started purchasing them from Maine fishermen 20 years ago.

How best to describe the taste of uni? It's like standing on the edge of a pier and tasting the ocean spray on some far-flung, isolated tip of New England...if the ocean was also made of softened butter. It's easy to see why it's prized for its flavor and texture, but also becomes a little silly when you think about all the annoying sea urchins fishermen used to scrape from their boats in fits of irritation smash to bits with hammers. (Note: I somehow confused barnacles with sea urchins while writing; how, I have no idea.)

The sea snail (known over here as whelk) also had a lovely texture, albeit of a different kind. It was enjoyably cartilaginous and had a fun snap to it that reminded me of octopus. It also tasted faintly briny, in the same way that you can hold a sea snail's shell to your ear and hear the vague roar of the ocean inside it.

After finishing my snail and roe, I turned my attention to the menu. The thing is a bit schizophrenic, featuring nearly every kind of Japanese food -- sushi to ramen to pork katsu-don -- and nearly every kind of preparation, from modern to traditional, under the sun. It's as if the restaurant looked at the popular items at other restaurants -- some hasame shiso age here, some deconstructed hamachi dishes there -- and threw them all into the mix. As a result, the happy hour menu is vast. You can't complain about a lack of options here.

 

I saw a sampler plate of escolar at the top for $7.50, which came with two pieces of sushi and two pieces of sashimi. Some escolar fans complain that you don't see it on menus at places like Kubo's or Kata Robata. Solution: Go to Aka, where you can get plenty of the oily fish. Don't get me wrong; I like escolar. It tastes like a pat of pure, salted butter. But there's a reason you don't see it on menus at more conscientious sushi restaurants: It's illegal in Japan (as well as a few other countries), and therefore some Japanese elect not to serve it over here either.

This is a discussion I first had with Yoichi Ueno, the affable owner of Kubo's who's better known as Yogi-san. Escolar is considered toxic in Japan due to its unfortunate tendency to induce steatorrhea (I'll let you look that up yourself) in those who eat it in large portions. A large portion is considered anything larger than six ounces, mind you. Since steatorrhea isn't the preferred way to have a diner remember their meal, Japan banned the oily fish in 1977. That hasn't stopped U.S. sushi restaurants from serving the stuff, of course, and even in some cases selling escolar as a different fish entirely, an elaborate form of albacore-related subterfuge.

The escolar at Aka tasted as wonderful as I imagine it always has, that rich fattiness attracting people to it despite any unfortunate after-effects (escolar contains wax esters, which humans can't digest...think of Olestra, if you need further elaboration). But at four sizable pieces, it was more than I should have probably eaten in one sitting. I recommend splitting the combination platter with a friend.

I realized rather stupidly as I left that night that I had eaten sea snail before, but not at a sushi restaurant. The sopa de caracol that I love so much at Honduras Maya is a creamy, coconut milk-based soup that features whelk -- or caracol -- as its star ingredient. And unlike at most sushi places, this sea snail dish is always on the menu.


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