How this Omakase experience immerses diners in the delicious world of college

While American diners are accustomed to comparative tastings of oysters, cheese, wine and even ham, eating three premium uni lobes, each from a different bay, is a rarer indulgence. “They have a similar aroma and flavor, but eaten side by side it opens the eyes and the palate to the nuances,” says Kunihide Nakajima, sushi chef and owner of Nakaji in New York’s Chinatown.

Nakaji is tucked away in an alley off the Bowery and just west of the Manhattan Bridge, and its intimate $225 omakase is an exercise in traditional Edomae technique, all passed down to Nakajima, a third-generation sushi master, by his grandfather and father.

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Nakajima, who worked in the United States for 25 years before opening Nakaji, noticed that more and more American customers were beginning to appreciate and ask for college, and he decided to create a “real experience of Japanese university”. At Nakaji, this uni tasting is available as an additional $70 omakase, or as a standalone $80 moment of happiness at Nakaji’s bar, where patrons can sip Japanese whiskey highballs and eat a more casual meal of chirashi and caramelized oysters with soy.

The crux of Nakaji’s college tasting is access. Nakajima’s family still runs restaurants in Tokyo, and thanks to those connections, he can buy a uni at the famous Toyoso Market. He buys around 30 trays of uni every week, split between three varieties.

Chief Kunihide Nakajima.  - Credit: Photo: Courtesy Melissa Hom

Chief Kunihide Nakajima. – Credit: Photo: Courtesy Melissa Hom

Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Hom

To step back, uni are the four to five gonads, or reproductive organs, found inside both male and female sea urchins. As the spiny creatures gobble up the kelp (their favorite diet), these orange-colored glands grow fat and fabulous, taking on the flavor of seaweed and nutrients from the surrounding ocean.

Of course, sea urchins grow in every corner of the ocean, in warm and cold waters (right now they’re wreaking havoc on the California coastline), and the 30 or so edible species come in all different shapes, sizes , colors and notes. This writer ate uni picked on the coast of Martinique and cooked in a Creole stew; chefs served me uni in quick ceviches, topping baked oysters and swirling in whiskey sauces and bowls of pasta.

“There’s no right way to eat uni,” says Nakajima, who has a thing for grilled uni and uni carbonara. He could also slip a premium lob over a stirred, just-warm bowl of chawanmushi.

But the highest quality uni, the material for omakases, is usually one of two varieties: bafun or murasaki harvested from the cold waters of northern Japan (and Hokkaido, in particular), as well as the neighboring Russian islands and the territory of Primorsky Krai. According to Nakajimi, this uni should be eaten raw and in its purest form.

The dark orange-colored bafun is a smaller species of sea urchin, whose flavor is bold and rich in umami, with occasional bitter notes. Most of the world’s bafun uni (also known as uni) is cooked, and reasonably priced sushi restaurants in Japan serve bafun uni from Mexico, California and South America, according to Nakaji. “Cheap restaurants can’t afford Japanese uni,” he says, noting that uni prices soared last fall after the red tide decimated Hokkaido’s Bafun uni population. .

Explore the world of sea urchins.  - Credit: Photo: courtesy Nakaji

Explore the world of sea urchins. – Credit: Photo: courtesy Nakaji

Photo: Courtesy Nakaji

However, the best of the best ezo-bafun uni, as the species is known in Hokkaido, is harvested from deep, frigid waters and its sweet, creamy lobes are worthy of no-frills sushi and sashimi presentations.

The delicate mustard-colored plain murasaki comes from a species of purple sea urchin, which has larger lobes than the bafun with a more subtle, brackish flavor. Although it grows throughout Japan and off the coast of Hokkaido (in which case it receives the designation kita-murasaki), much murasaki is harvested just north of Hokkaido on islands that have gone from Japanese control to Chinese and then Russian control.

Uni’s potential lies in the balance of nature (the species) and culture (the habitat), with the seasons subtly affecting the flavor, according to Nakajima. The high season for murasaki falls at the end of the hot summer of July and August; kita-murasaki takes place from September to October. Bafun in most of Japan reaches its peak from October to November, and ezo-bafun falls during the coldest months of December, January and February.

Dining at Nakaji is an education in these genealogical colleges, as well as Nakajima’s hyper-seasonal and obsessive approach to seafood sourcing.

Each package of uni that passes through Toyoso’s market is graded according to its shape, appearance, size, and taste. The specimens closest to perfection, the creme de la creme bafun and murasaki (graded with grades No. 1, 2 or 3) often go to auction, which Najakimi bids some 6,700 miles in New York. Some weeks he is able to get Toyoso’s number. 1 uni sold at auction well above the standard price. The reasoning is: if it’s the best on the market, it’s the best in Japan and the best in the world.

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