I just had the opportunity to eat at Uni. I know it's been around for a while, but it's quite the experience, for better or worse, and I just wanted to share a review I just finished writing up.
Photos at: http://www.thefoodbuster.com/uni-sash...
The Review (Course-by-course at the end):
Having heard about the brilliance that is Ken Oringer (James Beard Award at 30 + 6 of Boston's hottest restaurant isn't too shabby), I knew I had to tackle what I considered the oddest of his creations, Uni. So I assembled a team of sashimi-philes and headed out to the Eliot Hotel for a night of delicious excess (or famine, as we'd soon see) and innovation.
As we entered, we were immediately impressed with Uni’s incredible polish, as the tiny restaurant manages to retain the Japanese respect for simplicity while simultaneously bolstering it with a fair bit of American flair. You descend from the main dining room of the more ostentatious Clio to a mini-enclave, a small jet-black sashimi bar crowded with a few tables. It is, more or less, a one-note color scheme, and yet that black is so intense that it practically shines, enticing you with its simple polish. And every item, every utensil, and every piece of food embodies that same principle of simple polish, presenting you on the surface with what you’d expect of a Japanese dining experience and yet still surprising you with the sheer quality. For example, as you sit down, you’re presented with sleek, glowing, nut brown chopsticks, placed neatly on a shining silver stand. The sake comes in shimmering green bamboo flasks, with authentic, miniature bamboo cups. And the food is just as much eye candy as anything else, always presenting you with an array of flashy colors, from blacks to pinks to greens. This may all seem simple, but that’s exactly the brilliance of the restaurant’s presentation: Uni has thought through everything down to the tee, and yet everything comes together seamlessly, to the point that it’s almost easy to miss the sheer amount of thought and work that went into the design.
The service was unfortunately the low-light of the night, not befitting the extraordinary $100+ price tag. Hotel restaurants are notorious for their overly obsequious, overbearing formality, yet I found that Uni suffered from the exact opposite problem. While the 20-seat restaurant is so small that one waiter could perhaps easily serve the whole restaurant—or at least manage to see whether customers needed to be attended with one sweeping glance—very rarely did our waiter come by to check in on the meal or to take extra orders (and trust me, you will need more than one order after you see how small the dishes are), and it took nearly an eternity to get any water refills. Still, as far as professionalism and amiability goes, I did enjoy the more casual, friendly attitude, a refreshing find in any hotel-based restaurant.
Thankfully, the food more than redeemed the restaurant. Keeping with the sophisticated blend of classic and modern, Uni undertakes what I’d call a minimalist’s take on innovation, as it combines quality, fresh ingredients in precise proportions.
And it’s not all presentation, as the flavors are just as bright, well-proportioned, and delicious as their look would suggest. Of the four plates I tried, most were easily recommendable. Above all was the divine Uni Spoon, a sinful combination of a quail egg with caviar, chives, and fresh sea urchin. It hit me in layers, starting with the deliciously oceanic, savory uni taste, proceeding to the creamy richness of the yolk, then a blast of saltiness, and finally the refreshing, palate-cleansing herby flavor of the chives. And the texture! Gooey egg integrated a gelatinous, custard-like uni with the fineness of caviar—simply incredible.
The hamachi with grapefruit vinaigrette, cubanelle peppers, and shiso was nearly as good, livening up the very accessible, but somewhat neutral, hamachi with just the right amount of fruity sweetness, a tiny pepper kick, and finally another palate-cleanser with the minty shiso. Thankfully the grapefruit didn’t taste bitter at all.
At the same time, the food is not nearly perfect. For example, while the restaurant has a superb Scottish Salmon sashimi—the extraordinary, marbled fat makes it practically slides down as you bite into—it overshadows that delicious fish nearly to oblivion with its heavy-handed use of pepper. One of my accompanying sashimi experts commented, in fact, that he’d have preferred the Scottish Salmon alone, with no ingredients, which here tampered the fish’s natural excellence.
Far worse, though, was my foie gras and barbequed eel, where the restaurant took sweet eel sauce and completely drenched a piece of hot foie gras with it, dominating the foie gras’s natural, bitter, rich flavor. Not even the crisp green apple on the plate could save the dish from feeling heavy, oily, and sweet.
Regardless, if we’re talking just quality, it’s hard to imagine many designer sushi/sashimi bars beating Uni. Not only does it innovate, but it generally knows how to counterbalance bold flavors against each other, always striving for balance and restraint (except when it comes to foie gras)—something that most of these fusion places almost always seem to forget.
My biggest complaint, then, isn’t with the taste. Nor is it even with the service.
What it comes down to is the bottom line. This is mind-blowingly good sashimi sometimes, but is that worth the price?
That Uni Spoon I spoke of? $16 for one bite of food! The dish may be superb. It may even beckon heavenly choirs into your mouth. But that’s a lot of money to be asking a person to pay for a bite of food.
To be fair, most of the other dishes are quite a bit larger. Still, I left the restaurant $100 poorer after splitting a small flask of sake (which cost me $15), sharing 2 plates, eating one plate completely by myself, having a spoon’s worth of uni, and enjoying a decadently rich, but palm-sized, chocolate cremeux. And I left starving, so much so that I immediately went to Chez Henri on my return and had the Cuban Sandwich, which, for $14, was probably more filling than my entire meal at Uni. While the ambience might make the price a little better, the service simply does not justify paying $100 for 4 plates, dessert, and some sake.
The ultimate choice, then, depends on three factors.
First, how much do you enjoy sashimi, and how much of a purist are you? If this is your cuisine, it simply doesn’t get much better, as this is hands down the most unique take on Japanese I’ve ever experienced. But if you’re coming here because it’s just a hotspot, or if you’re a purist, you may want to reconsider, because there are places just as hot in Boston and with sashimi just as good in quality at half the price.
Second, income. This is, unfortunately, not a place for the common man.
Third, hunger. Come here to be thrilled, not filled.
All in all, then, I’m glad for the experience, but I probably won’t be returning.
Without further ado, the course-by-course:
1. Uni Spoon (with a quail egg, Osetra caviar and chives): $16 for literally one spoonful of food may sound like a ripoff (and it is), but once you see and taste the dish, it begins to make just a little more sense. The restaurant provides you a generous portion of very high-quality uni (sea urchin), which tastes almost like oceanic, slightly salty, slightly savory heavy gelatin. And the ingredients mesh nearly perfectly, with the flavor, hitting you in numerous layers. First, you start off with the big, savory uni taste, followed by the incredibly strong, creamy fattiness of the yolk from the quail egg. A more pronounced, fishier saltiness then hits you as the palate picks up the caviar, and finally the subtle blast of herby chives near the end helps to balance out some of the rougher, richer flavors. But, for me personally, this dish is all about the indescribably delicious texture, as the gooey, incredibly creamy quail egg integrates the gelatinous, custard-like sea urchin and the finer caviar into an incredibly rich and decadent, but infinitely smooth, custard soup. Best of all, the dish leaves a layer of slightly oceanic yolk across the palate, leaving the mouth puckering with the uni’s fresh flavor in the back of the throat. 4.7+/5.0
2. Scottish Salmon (with Chinese black bean tapenade and fresh ginger): Probably the single best piece of fish I had all night, but the accompaniments don’t suit it as nicely as I’d like. The Scottish salmon is, in fact, so good that the accompaniments seem extraneous to an extent. It comes incredibly tender, with the fat marbled in perfectly so that you get an even amount chewiness in every bite. Never, however, does it feel rubbery. Moreover, the fat gives it a very bold flavor that you don’t get in normal salmon. Still, the dish makes a misstep with the black bean tapenade, which overpowers even the delicious fattiness of the salmon with excessive saltiness and garlic, especially in the aftertaste. I did like the fresh blast of pepper that you get as you put each piece in your mouth. That pepper is almost excessive, but it soon balances out as the ginger and salt begin to pick up. Overall, the dish just seems a bit confused, as it ranges from very peppery to garlicky to salty. Still, the quality of the ingredients, especially the salmon, is incredible. 4.3/5.0
3. Lacquered Foie Gras and Barbequed Eel (with green apple and kabayaki glaze): My least favorite dish of the night, for two reasons. First, the kabayaki glaze (made of soy sauce, sweet rice wine, and sugar) is slightly too sweet for my taste, and while it suits the eel well, it seems tacked onto the rich foie gras needlessly. Second, I enjoy fresh foie gras, but here it is roasted, giving it a slightly tougher-than-normal chewiness in the exterior, and it tastes somewhat oily, covering up the natural goose flavor. Thus, it is bland, even with the kabayaki. However, it’s difficult not to enjoy this dish. The eel is very tender, to the point that it is almost flaky on the inside, and yet it retains just enough toughness on the outside so that it doesn’t fall apart. It is also cut in flat but wide pieces, providing a good proportion of sauce to eel. But the best part of the dish is by far the texture, as it contrasts the tender eel off two polar opposites: the rich, almost gelatinous creaminess of the foie gras and the huge crunch of the never mushy green apple. Finally, I think the sour freshness of the green apple works well as a counterbalance to the overpowering, sweet oiliness of the other components—I just don’t think it’s enough. 2.8/5.0
4. Hamachi (Japanese Yellowtail with grapefruit vinaigrette, cubanelle peppers and shiso): While the fish itself isn’t quite as high-quality as the Scottish salmon, the accompaniments add so much flavor and nuance that this is by far the superior dish. The hamachi is still fresh and tender, though because it’s much leaner it isn’t quite melt-in-your-mouth. It is instead the grapefruit vinaigrette which shines, particularly as the embodiment of flavorful restraint: While grapefruit tends to be overpoweringly bitter, the vinaigrette manages to achieve nearly the perfect balance between fruity sweetness and bitter tang. In fact, it has more of a blood orange, citrusy quality than what I’d expect from a full-on grapefruit. After the initial fruitiness, the cubanelle peppers kick in to give the dish a tiny bit of counterbalancing spice—one much less than the peppery flavor in the Scottish salmon. Finally, just as that pepper and fruitiness become too strong, the shiso hits you with a blast of fresh, minty flavor, leaving your palate with an aromatic, refreshing end. 4.5/5.0. A harmonious, complex interplay of ingredients where nothing is wasted.
5. Miso Dark Chocolate Cremeux (with banana ice cream, golden miso, and cashew butter): I have to say, for a sashimi bar, Uni really knows how to nail a dessert, though this dessert is not quite as complex as the name and description might suggest. The restaurant seems to imply that miso serves as a substantive component in the plate, but the “golden miso” is simply relegated to a little line of syrup spread across the plate for presentational flair. The same goes for the cashew butter. Thus, this dish is really a dark chocolate cremeux with banana ice cream—and it’s delicious nonetheless. The cremeux may seem small at first, but it comes decadent, with the consistency of semi-solid ganache. And the flavor is on the neutral side, with Uni opting to emphasize the dark chocolate’s creaminess over its bitterness. The rich bitterness does come out lightly in the end, though, leaving you smacking your lips. The banana ice cream is a very nice contrast, both in texture and flavor. It is incredibly light and creamy, more like gelato than actual ice cream. Yet the flavor is as bold as the texture is light, providing a very fruity, very real banana taste. It both lightens the chocolate and enhances its neutral flavor with some very natural-tasting sweetness. 4.5/5.0. Very, very simple, but executed fantastically.
6. Bonus points on the amazing sake selection. I tried the first underneath the “rich” category listing, the Daishichi Kimoto Honjozo (Fukushima). The restaurant’s description is quite accurate: “creamy fragrance of rice and aromas of Japanese cypress.” It had a surprisingly nice mouth feel, hitting you with a tiny bit of milkiness, and I truly enjoyed the overtones of pine, oak, and other woods.
Verdict: 3.3/5.0. An easy sell if you’re just looking for a culinary thrill, regardless of price, but very tough to justify compared to other fine dining experiences of the same caliber.
370 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA
1 Shepard Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Uni Sashimi Bar
370 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA