Sea Urchins and Shellfish: A Raw Bar to Be Rivaled at L'Olivier

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If you've only driven by L'Olivier, you may have pegged the Montrose restaurant as a French restaurant and nothing more. Visions of bœuf bourguignon and pâté may dance in your head, and while you wouldn't be wrong...you wouldn't be entirely right either. The L'Olivier I've come to love is split in two: an elegant French brasserie and a small but serious raw bar.

The brasserie side of L'Olivier is given the lion's share of the attention in this week's cafe review, but I'd be remiss not to mention the briny pleasures showcased in an icy palace at the end of L'Olivier's bottle-laden bar.

On one visit, I was lucky enough to score one of the handful of sea urchins that chef/owner Olivier Ciesielski ships in from California a couple of times a week. Ciesielski only orders a few so that the spiny, forest green creatures are always at their freshest. When they're gone, they're gone.

At $25, the sea urchins are best split between two to four people -- not only for cost's sake, but also because the echinoderms that Ciesielski has been getting in are huge. He cleaves the spiky shells in half and flavors the bright orange gonads (better known as uni in Japanese cuisine) with briny, black squid ink for an extra punch of ocean-born bitterness. You can spread the soft sea urchin on hot, crusty French bread after the Gallic fashion or slurp it from a spoon -- I like to trade off doing both.

I ate a single sea urchin all to myself at L'Olivier on that lucky afternoon, greedily gobbling up every last jiggly bite with a single-minded determination similar to that French expression of avarice, "il a des oursins dans les poches," or "he has sea urchins in his pockets." It's a saying used to describe someone who's tight with money, but is also -- I think -- equally apt at expressing the sort of greed necessary to stuff your pockets with delicacies meant to be enjoyed in small, special settings and amounts.

The flavor and texture of sea urchin straight from the shell is so very different from that of uni, which has a far drier texture and less complexity to it overall. The best I can manage is to call the creamy, ethereal gonads sea-salty, buttery and briny with a final funky whiff of barnyard muck and wet hay as you swallow and the last of the urchin slides down your throat.

Michelin-starred chef Pierre Gagnaire describes it enthusiastically as "incredibly complex, at once bitter and sweet, radically sea scented and slightly smoky, with notes of hazelnut, honey and even blood!" The echinoderm is so popular in his -- and Ciesielski's -- home country of France, that the southern coast is home to long-running sea urchin festivals such as the Oursinade in Carry le Rouet, a small harbor town not far from Marseilles.

You can find other French favorites at the raw bar too, like the delicate oysters I enjoyed on the half shell with some of Ciesielski's tangy mignonette on a return visit. They're not French -- the delicate East Coast bivalves are from Piper's Point, Rhode Island this week -- but the effect is the same. You can also find Alaskan king crab legs, Prince Edward Island mussels and New England langostine (in case L'Olivier's whole lobster salad for $18 proves too pricey).

And as of yesterday afternoon, L'Olivier had a batch of sea urchins in stock as well. They won't last for long, so go and stuff your pockets with a few while they're fresh.

Read more about L'Olivier in this week's cafe review, or take a peek behind the scenes in our slideshow.

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