The Beauty of Uni at Kata Robata: A Photographic Essay

Uni (sea urchin) is one of those seafood delicacies that, like oysters, you either love or hate. If you love it, eating it will fill you rapturous delight, often accompanied by a heady rush of endorphin-fueled food pleasure. If you hate it, maybe that's because you were the recipient of a bad sample. There are varying grades of uni, and if you didn't get the freshest sample or the best grade, it can be quite unpleasant.

When you've had Grade-A uni, however, the sweet creaminess and whisper-delicate oceanic flavors are a thing of beauty.

At Kata Robata, the uni is always top-notch, the kind worth waxing poetic over. From the simplest form of uni sushi or uni sashimi, Executive Chef Manabu Horiuchi (Hori-san) is always coming up with new ways to titillate and delight, using the highest-grade uni available from Santa Barbara or San Diego. The following photographic essay is a compilation of uni dishes Hori-san has created over the past three years.

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Uni amaebi (sea urchin and sweet shrimp) nigiri sushi Try to order this elsewhere, and the result just won't be the same. At Kata Robata, the two powerhouse ingredients -- plump, sweet shrimp and intensely fresh uni -- combine with sushi rice for a one-two punch that is insanely good.

Uni stuffed fried shrimp head At a recent dinner, the uni was so superlative that I jokingly said to Hori-san, "You can put uni on everything if you want," and he proceeded to do that. Fried shrimp heads are normally served at sushi restaurants whenever you order live sweet shrimp. In this case, they came stuffed with uni. It was food-gasmic. Seriously.

Uni and abalone sushi Hori-san sous-vides abalone to give it this silky texture, then tops it with uni and a dollop of fresh wasabi. Smoky, silky abalone with creamy sweet uni on top boggles the mind with how good it is.

Pork belly with Uni butter Rich, melt-in-your-mouth-tender sous-vide chunks of slightly charred pork belly are laid on the plate with a whipped uni butter. You'll want to lick the plate. Utterly sublime.

Uni and king crab spoons A staple on the Kata Robata menu for years, white porcelain spoons of delicate king crab are topped with uni and served on a bed of ice. Not only is the presentation fantastic, but the single bite wholly merits the description "phenomenal."

Uni chawanmushi The traditional, dashi-based hot Japanese custard already has a hint of oceanic flavors from the bonito flakes in the broth. Add the extra dose of creamy uni into the mix, and you have a winner. This was the dish that earned Hori-san his place as a Starchefs.com Rising Star Chef when the organization came to Houston in 2011.

Double-decker uni sushi What's better than uni sushi? Double-decker uni sushi, meaning two pieces of uni piled on top of each other for a decadent single bite of heaven.

Uni sashimi Rarely do you see uni served as sashimi, but you can and should order it. It will require excellent chopstick skills, but it might just blow your mind.

Live Uni with ika The pinnacle of all uni dishes, and one that isn't always available, is live uni. If you see it on the specials menu, just order it. It's the closest you can get to being on an exotic beach somewhere, where it's typically served inside the shell so that you can just scoop it up with a spoon. The version shown here was served during Kata Robata's special Super Umami Dinner, when each guest at the meal was a served a whole single live uni prepared in two ways; pictured was the version with ika (squid) and wasabi powder.

Hori-san takes one last look at his live uni before it is served.

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