Image: Emma Marshall
July 11 2014
My first encounter with a sea urchin was not auspicious. I was snorkelling near Navy Island, Errol Flynn’s old hideaway on Jamaica’s north coast, and failed to notice that the tide had gone out. I wasn’t wearing flippers, so the journey back to shore was painful.
When the spines had finally worked their way out of my feet, I vowed that on every subsequent occasion I came across the spiky little devils, it would be at the dinner table – the snorkel and mask supplanted by a flask of sake and a pair of chopsticks.
Not that sea urchins are exclusive to Japanese cuisine – far from it. You might find their ozone-scented curds stirred into scrambled eggs on the weekend breakfast menu at 8 Hoxton Square (first picture), the new sister restaurant to the brilliant 10 Greek Street.
Less cramped than the Soho original, it offers the same winning blend of inspired bar snacks (including zeppole, Italian doughnuts filled with spicy, melting nduja sausage), more substantial helpings of beautifully cooked meat and fish (Dorset crab with blood orange, fennel and chilli, perhaps, or a meltingly fragrant ragù of lamb with tender little broad beans and perfect gnocchi), friendly, well-informed service and a cracking, great-value wine list.
The best place in London to wreak revenge on the urchin, however, is Umu (second picture), the Michelin-starred, Kyoto-style restaurant on Bruton Place. Here, behind the imposing door, is a true playground for aficionados not just of sea urchins, but of everything else that Japanese cuisine has to offer. The kaiseki menu is simply sublime, especially when thoughtfully combined with selections from the magisterial list of wines and sakes.
Kaiseki is, by its nature, a seasonal concept: on my visit in spring, that meant the delights of elvers steamed in sake; a delicate scallop mousse studded with punchy little chunks of red clam and drenched in a kombu-scented broth; grilled and lacquered leg and steamed breast of guineafowl with morels and sakura (cherry blossom) jelly; and superb, paper-thin sashimi of turbot, the fish completely free of veins, a testament to chef Yoshinori’s uncompromising approach to buying his fish. One gets the idea that not only is it flown in fresh from Tokyo, it travels first class in its favourite seat and speeds from Heathrow in a refrigerated limousine.
The menu is a triumph of flavours and textures, but I have room for one special request, too: sea urchins artfully heaped in half, a spiny shell atop a mound of crushed ice, slightly floral in aroma, not aggressively pungent, but very definitely of the sea and delightfully sweet. Revenge is, indeed, a dish best served cold.