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Love uni? Eat your fill of sea urchin in an Italian restaurant for a change

Starting Friday (Jul 5), The Lighthouse Restaurant & Rooftop Bar at The Fullerton Hotel is showcasing sea urchin as part of a seasonal menu.

Love uni? Eat your fill of sea urchin in an Italian restaurant for a change

Fresh Sea Urchin Gragnano Spaghetti. (Photo: The Lighthouse Restaurant & Rooftop Bar)

Chef Carlo Marengoni isn’t particularly fond of sea urchin, or ricci di mare as it’s known in Italian. He’s from Bergamo, a landlocked city about an hour’s drive northeast of Milan in the foothills of the Italian Alps. The Chef de Cuisine of The Fullerton Hotel’s The Lighthouse Restaurant & Rooftop Bar is much more accustomed to the rich, earthy, robust dishes of the north: Porcini, polenta, stuffed ravioli and truffles.

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Yet he knows all too well the dining habits of Singaporeans, having made the island his home for the past 24 years (he’s also married to a Singaporean). That knowledge – of Singaporeans’ love affair with the spiky marine creature – inspired Marengoni to come up with a special urchin-focused menu that will be available for a limited time only.

Called Chef Marengoni’s Signature Sea Urchin Specials, the four-course menu (S$148++ for lunch or dinner) is a gastronomic journey designed to send uni lovers into seventh heaven. Oops, pardon us – uni is the Japanese term that has been appropriated into local parlance, thanks to its ubiquity in Japanese cuisine.

Half Naked Boston Lobster with Sea Urchin Sauce. (Photo: The Lighthouse Restaurant & Rooftop Bar)

“I’m trying to let people know that you can also have sea urchin in an Italian restaurant,” Marengoni told CNA Luxury during a tasting ahead of the menu’s launch. Indeed, the harvesting of urchins is as much an Italian tradition as it is Nipponese, although for obvious reasons the Mediterranean-facing southerners are its strongest advocates.

The menu is available from July 5 to July 26, 2019, July marking the start of the harvest season in Puglia, the region best known for ricci di mare. The traditional way to eat it is to dip fresh, homemade bread straight into the halved creature’s creamy centre. “The bread is already very tasty, and with the sea urchin, you don’t need other flavours,” explained chef.

Another popular option is to toss it into a simple pasta dish. The restaurant already has one such dish on its regular menu, Fresh Sea Urchin Gragnano Spaghetti, which has been a hit with customers.

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The dish is reprised in the seasonal menu – where it forms the second course – and was a clear favourite at the table. Tossed with a rich sauce of garlic, anchovies and bottarga, this traditional pairing is enjoyed throughout Puglia, Sicily and Sardinia. Marengoni used dry pasta rather than egg pasta, the perfectly al dente noodles providing the requisite firmness and bite in contrast to the velvety urchin.

It must be noted that Marengoni used a Japanese variety for the tasting, although there is little difference in taste between the two. The most obvious distinction is the colour: Ricci di mare tends towards deep orange and red tones, whereas uni ranges from pale yellows to light oranges (and even purples).

Hokkaido Scallop Carpaccio and Sea Urchin. (Photo: The Lighthouse Restaurant & Rooftop Bar)

To backtrack a little, the starter course: Hokkaido Scallop Carpaccio was paired with Sea Urchin, dusted with seaweed powder, and zested with lime. The delicate, briny flavours of this oceanic duo set the stage for the rest of the tasting.

As to why the menu doesn’t offer, say, a starter of bruschetta or house-made bread and urchin – to introduce the traditional pairing to local diners – Marengoni explained: “It could be considered too simple. [Maybe it would work] as an amuse bouche, but as an appetiser, [guests would feel that] it’s too simple – they could do it at home.”

Veal Tenderloin with Sea Urchin Sauce. (Photo: The Lighthouse Restaurant & Rooftop Bar)

For the third course, diners can choose to savour a dish from the land or the sea: Either the Half Naked Boston Lobster (less salacious than it sounds) or the Veal Tenderloin. The former was dressed with a house-made urchin sauce, served with a side of turnip greens, and garnished with freshly shaved truffle. The latter was bathed in the same sauce, and came with a side of asparagus and a sprinkle of house-made porcini powder.

We sampled both options, and found the lobster to be a tad overcooked, although it did provide ample bite, (once again) a counterpoint to the custardy urchin texture. The veal, meanwhile, was fork-tender and pleasantly savoury, working well as a fleshy base for the urchin.

To cleanse the palate, the tasting concluded with Marengoni’s take on a traditional lemon-centric dessert from the Amalfi coast: Lemon Delight with Amalfi Lemon Custard, Lemon Sorbet and Limoncello. Pro tip: Do as we did and order a shot of Limoncello liqueur to round off the experience. You won’t regret it.

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Source: CNA/ds