Brave was the person who first decided to eat a sea urchin.
Gifted with a defense system that Kim Jong-un would envy, the creature is covered in 360 degrees of long, black spikes, like a porcupine minus the overgrown rat in the middle. But inside is uni — the urchin’s pliant orange meat, with a tongue-like line down the center.
It’s hard to get at, but once you do it’s addictively delicious — briny and rich and texturally unique.
So it’s always made sense that chef-owner Ken Oringer’s tiny sushi bar downstairs at the Eliot Hotel was named for the hard-to-crack creature. Clio, the big restaurant upstairs, was adventurous — all foams and smears and powders on the plate; Uni was dangerous — tiny and a little intimidating.
But when Oringer closed Clio at the end of last year, an expanded Uni took its place. Out went the abstract art and only slightly less abstract food; Oringer, with Menton veteran Tony Messina as executive chef/partner and Akira Sugimoto (O Ya) as sushi chef, pried open the little sushi bar and let everybody in.
And the result is every bit as satisfying as the flesh inside a spiny urchin. The remodeled restaurant maintains the shape of Clio but installs a sushi bar along the length of one wall. Leather-clad booths flank the dimly lit dining room from its four corners.
The front of the menu marries traditional Japanese dishes with influences from Asia and beyond — what we used to call fusion until that became synonymous with terrible taco ideas.
Confident, knowledgeable servers recommend three to five dishes per person, and the cold plates at the top of the menu merit at least one tick off your budget. The smoked uni spoon — a single bite for $16 — pairs a sturdy section of urchin with a perfect sphere of quail egg yolk and a dollop of caviar, varying texture slightly but enough. Chilled octopus layers impossibly tender cephalopod with adzuki beans, vinaigrette, and ramps, improving upon the charred octopus dish on every fine-dining menu in the city.
Beyond the cold dishes, 30 or so hot plates include more tempting options than any four people could reasonably order.
Chiang Mai duck carnitas is a pile of flavorful shredded duck atop scallion pancakes, the richness offset with a bright green papaya slaw. A Berkshire pork belly steam bun crams a cube of perfectly crispy pork into a soft, folded baozi; a scallop bun is at least as good, though even the scallop’s parents would find $10 hard to justify for a single, perfect cylinder of shellfish.
Rolls bounce from typical — a perfect soft-shell crab number — to bizarre. Who exactly is ordering the White Castle burger roll (at the cost of about 10 White Castle burgers)?
Sashimi dishes expand the definition of the term. Spicy tuna and foie gras tataki pairs a wafer of seared tuna with an olive-size quenelle of fatty liver; strawberry and Peruvian aji amarillo peppers provide a spicy-sweet counterpoint to the richness. It’s revelatory: Seared tuna, it turns out, is the perfect foie gras delivery vehicle.
Across the menu, a handful of options encourage sharing, such as the grilled hamachi kama, the bony, fatty collar of a yellowtail, slathered with spicy, pungent red glaze. A party of four can pick away at it with chopsticks for 20 minutes and still find rich, tender fish tucked away somewhere. Crispy broccoli, served in a long and narrow dish, is worth savoring and returning to while other plates come and go. It’s dry and brittle, then juicy and vinegary, then slightly spicy — a magic trick only a skilled fryer could pull off.
Sugimoto wisely reins in the whims when it comes to nigiri (fresh, raw fish served on a ball of rice). Gentle smoke flavor enhances but does not distract from the bright, salty-sweet flavor or the delicate texture of the salmon roe in the smoked ikura. Daily specials include selections from the famed Tsukiji market in Tokyo.
Unsurprisingly on a menu this large, there are some duds.
A playful take on chicken and waffles would have been improved if the waffle, made from roasted soybean flour, had disintegrated in the cooking process and died a mushy death in the kitchen trash.
A5 Wagyu sirloin, served with a large, intensely hot black rock and three piles of different salts, is quite a spectacle. But at $30 an ounce, you ought to get a Skype meeting with the rancher and an oven-safe rock to warm up your leftovers at home. And serving the world’s best beef in tiny slivers to be warmed briefly on a stone divorces the experience almost completely from the ways we most enjoy meat: Give me a 2-ounce cut and a blowtorch and I’ll at least get a decent sear on the thing.
A flame might also provide a secondary light source. While the notion of museum-quality food art sometimes verges on the absurd — if someone tells you that we “eat with our eyes first,” feel free to take your whole face elsewhere — so many of the plates at Uni are so intricately composed that it would be nice to at least get a look at them. While I’d rather turn the blowtorch on myself than make a scene, my table repeatedly resorted to firing up the flashlight apps on our phones, revealing surprises like elegant edible flowers sprinkled daintily on more than one dish.
Bar manager Jason Kilgore’s beverage program may not be as deep as Clio’s was in its later years, but cocktails at Uni are adventurous and appealing. Los Muertos mixes tequila with lime and grapefruit as in a Paloma but classes up the joint with falernum syrup. Other drinks’ names are so sly that they risk being indecipherable: The Schultz & Brown is made with ground peanuts — get it? — and if you figure out why the Finkle & Einhorn has banana in it, your detective skills are better than most.
Much of the drink menu has been given over to one of the city’s best collections of Japanese wine and spirits. All but the most experienced sake drinkers ought to lean on the well-informed servers for help navigating the extensive menu; the collection of Japanese single malt whiskeys on the back of the dessert list will excite any whiskey head.
Desserts are inventive in that way that you — OK, I — pretend to enjoy more than I actually enjoy. Miso cheesecake mousse dials back the richness of a cream cheese cake and is studded with morsels of potent strawberry; the coconut Klondike bar is a dark chocolate egg full of rich coconut-flavored ice cream — like a real coconut would be if real coconuts weren’t always a ton of work for almost nothing.
There’s nary a crowd-pleaser in the bunch, though the ice cream will pass in a pinch. After a night spent savoring every adzuki bean and slaving over the beef-cooking rock, there’s something to be said for mainlining chocolate ganache. Deconstruct me a s’more or something.
But roll up everything Uni does right and that’s a trout roe-size complaint. This is exciting and inspiring food — the kind of thing Clio was doing in its heyday. So many places that promise to be exciting forget to be satisfying, too. But not Uni. Here, nearly every barb of invention gives way to something lush and delicious.
370 Commonwealth Ave., Back Bay, Boston, 617-536-7200, www.uni-boston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Cold plates $8-$18. Hot plates $5-$30. Sashimi, nigiri, and makimono $8-$30. Omakase tasting menu $125.
Hours Sun-Thu 5:30-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5:30-10:30 p.m., late-night menu 10:30 p.m.-1 a.m.
Noise level A playlist that may or may not be on the barback’s iPhone insists upon itself.
What to order Chilled octopus, Berkshire pork belly steam bun, Chiang Mai duck carnitas, grilled hamachi kama, spicy tuna and foie gras tatakiNestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.