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Oringer heads East, gives modern twist to UNI

RESTAURANT REVIEW: Uni Sashimi Bar

Overall Rating: B+

There was, in the early 1990’s, a perverse fascination with east-meets-west cuisine: the images of deep red silk (or, in Ming Tsai’s case, shades of blue), an excuse to hire exotic Asian waitresses, the ability to serve sweet and plump raw fish harvested straight from the Pacific Ocean, and chopsticks. (Mind you, nobody seems to get that right – one is not supposed to frantically grip it down like they’re eels).

Then there’s UNI Sashimi Bar, technically a restaurant of its own but essentially just adjacent to Clio, with a cozy space flanked by ribbed-frame mirrors with plush chairs, dark red sconces. The centerpiece is a counter with a display case as large as a coffin, displaying any kind of fish imaginable – at least enough to incense a PETA enthusiast. Across the hall, the comparatively elegant Clio is housed in a spacious space with grey walls, oversized lambs and thick Georgian windowpanes.

As you can see, some elements remain, but something about UNI is hip, modern, and prodigiously expensive.

Both Clio and UNI are owned and managed by Chef Ken Oringer, a creative mind who’s built his repertoire like how Paul Klee consolidates every-day images into multi-colored cubes. He’s a regular purveyor of molecular gastronomy (many chefs dislike that term, but it’s actually quite apt) and thus likes to turn dishes into scientific experiments – deconstruct this, congeal that.

At UNI, his modernist presence is felt. The focus, however, is more on the produce, and it’s fortunately not limited to the salmon, tuna, and yellowtail variety, as one can find, amongst others, salt water eel, Pacific Saury and Mirugai (Giant Japanese Clam). For the three-course restaurant week menu ($33.10), choose between Amadai and Yellowfin Tuna Poke. Don’t let the exotic name intimidate you – they’re just slices of semi-opaque white fish, slightly sweet and briny from the sea – so fresh that Oringer decides to leave the skin on and, unfortunately, a few scales in hindsight. Rekkyo and shallot marmalade plopped on top gives it a mellow candied-flavor, while a side of smoked labne (strained yoghurt), neutralizes while vaguely recalling memories of those smoked salmon and cream-cheese finger sandwiches.

Less impressive is the bowl of tuna poke. Oringer makes no noticeable effort to go whimsical in a New-American staple that’s been horridly done to death: some chopped sweet onions and picked mung-beans crisp up the large wholesome chunks of tuna. Then in keeping with the fashionable trend of using every Asian-American condiment available, Oringer laces it with seaweed and sesame oil like a crack cocaine addict. Cue image of some sweaty sesame farmer in japan sprinkling seeds over his plantation.

Maybe our waiter caught the fleeting moment of disappointment and brought over a complimentary plate of fluke sashimi. They’re rolled up like fat cigars, drizzled with a touch of jalapeño vinaigrette – don’t be afraid, they’re sweeter than spicy, more herbal than harsh. But fresh as these flukes may be, they’re in need of a kick, as the hints of Thai basil and rhubarb are a little too subtle. Otherwise go for the restaurant’s famed uni spoon: buttery, melt-in-your-mouth sea urchin with quail egg, Oscietra caviar and chives, a dish that TCS board member Josh Kapelman describes as “orgasmic.”

Deconstruction finally begins with a thick braised Kobe short rib glazed with tamarind, which I couldn’t taste past the strings-attached rib. Perhaps in a rush to turnover tables Oringer gives it a premature treatment and removes the meats from the braising liquid, giving birth to a creature akin to a redwood tree bark. Whatever happened to the marbled fats that one looks for? Never mind the texture – chopped cabbages, bittersweet and tangy like coleslaw, almost make it bearable to eat, and the Okinawa sweet potatoes, piped onto the plate like elegant purple-colored turds, are divine.

Oringer plays it safe again with a broiled salmon teriyaki – one would imagine he’d sous-vide the hell out of it, but it nevertheless arrives perfect seared. It needn’t be drenched in Teriyaki, too. The accompanying brussels sprout leaves more than make up for the lackluster taste of the salmon with its smoky wok hei (an authentic Asian term that describes the breath of a wok, regardless of whether or not one uses a wok to cook it). And the thinly sliced kumquats will send you on a sugar-high.

If you’re still starving for some moment of Einstein wizardry, then look out for desserts. The passion fruit tart seems like a failsafe option provided you’d like it completely disintegrated, which is cute if you’re into the sort of fantasy game where you hunt for missing pieces of a talisman that has been cast to four corners of the world. Alas, what if you summon Captain Planet but realize that Kwamé, the green ringed conjurer of Earth, has gone rogue? Luckily all the components here are present: litchee sorbet in a neat quenelle, coffee-crumble in a soil-like mound, and passionfruit congealed, naturally, into a jelly-like cube. Expect the same for Mandarin caramel (oh look ma, how Oriental) with aloe ice cubes, and some coconut noodles, weaved to look like wide parpadelle ribbons that are annoyingly fun to chew. It’s like a Marc-Jacobean update to the traditional Japanese dessert composed of noodles drenched into molasses syrup, but this time with some added floral, tangy notes.

Having given your tongue a much needed exercise of all five taste buds, don’t expect to enjoy Wang’s sweet and sour pork on rice bowl anytime soon – UNI can be your temporary fix. Though not representative through their Restaurant Week menu, it looks like Oringer may have more to offer. It will also be helpful to brush up on your sashimi knowledge to provide for interesting conversation pieces with your date. Now who was it who said that he’d like to tell you about the origin of his eel?

370 Commonwealth Ave
Boston, MA 02215
Neighborhood: Back Bay

(617) 536-7200

– Jon Cheng

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