When you see uni pasta on the menu, do your eyes, like mine, gravitate toward it as though sparklers surrounded it? It seems to have become de rigueur at every Asian fusion restaurant that's opened in the past few years. Fusion Bites, inside Fountain Valley's Ayres Hotel, recently upgraded its version to include black tobiko. At some point, Kitchen Republic at Bella Terra did it. There are even versions of it out there that don't even qualify as pasta; the trendy OPM Restaurant & Lounge in Huntington Beach uses udon, for instance.
Now uni pasta has seeped into the menus of OC's newest seafood restaurants—the Asian-fronted ones, at least. I recently slurped a soupy version at Mission Viejo's Anchor Hitch that used ramen. At the new EMC Seafood & Raw Bar in Irvine, that was the dish two different waiters on two separate trips recommended above all else. "It's our most popular item," one of them said.
I ordered it, of course—my umpteenth uni pasta dish in so many months. EMC's version was served in a bowl and showered with torn flecks of black nori. A single lobe of uni crouched at the summit of the noodles. And when I twirled the spaghetti around my fork, the thick, yellow gravy that pooled beneath started to cling to the strands. It was so rich in cream it not only looked like cheese sauce, but it also tasted as if it came from a blue box of Kraft. In fact, it may be the cheesiest uni pasta I've eaten. In my brain, the dish registered more as macaroni and cheese than anything involving sea urchin.
If I didn't taste much uni in that dish, it wouldn't be the last time. The same thing happened with the uni toast I ordered on my second EMC trip. Despite twice the amount of raw uni crowning the two hors d'oeuvre-sized pieces of griddled bread, for which I paid $13, it was the blue cheese tang of the triple crème that I tasted most. The uni's subtle sea-custard sweetness lingered quietly somewhere in the back.
A better way to have uni here was to spend $5 more to get it in its raw, natural state—spikes and all. EMC Seafood & Raw Bar's chefs seem to perform exceeding well when they do as little as possible to seafood. I ate a briskly chilled carpaccio made of nothing but scallop in a sea of ponzu, each thickly cut steak dabbed with electric zaps of yuzu kosho. And the oysters, no matter the origin or price point, were shucked so carefully not a single errant piece of shell interrupted my slurps.
Sharing the same owners as the sushi chain Wokcano, the restaurant seems to know that beyond the uni pasta, you're there for the raw stuff. The oyster shuckers are placed front and center, behind a glass partition, working over waist-high mounds of ice. They're what first grabs your attention as you enter this former Elephant Bar, which is now an echo-y room that's equal parts Fisherman's Wharf and mall food court.
EMC's customer base is predominately Asian, specifically Korean, most of whom are probably familiar with the original EMC Seafood that hit it big in LA's Koreatown a few years ago. There isn't much on the menu that's actually Korean, though. Instead, there are great renditions of Chinese seafood-restaurant staples that would take multiple trips to explore, starting with shrimp lightly battered, deep-fried, then wok-tossed with the usual aromatic blend of scallions, sliced jalapeños and garlic. You can get lobster cooked in the same manner. But the cheapest of these options is the crispy smelt, a generous platter of whole, finger-long pieces of the fish bursting with roe. The leftover smelt heated up great in my toaster oven the next day. I ate it with steamed rice, the one thing it desperately needed.
I also enjoyed a seafood salad full of crab tossed among lightly dressed greens. More crabmeat can be had cradled in bibb lettuce with bits of bacon and avocado. Our waiter described the lettuce cups as tasting like "the best handheld Cobb salad you'll ever have." He wasn't wrong.
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He was also right about the lobster ravioli. He'd recommended it after I told him I'd already tried the uni pasta. Though it was 10 times as rich—drowned in more cream and dotted with pieces of perfectly cooked shrimp than a cardiologist would advise you to eat in one sitting—the lobster meat reveled in it. Who knew that lobster is best when it's overloaded with butter? Oh, yeah, everyone.
EMC Seafood & Raw Bar, 14346 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 748-3979; www.emcseafood.com. Open Sun.-Tues., 11 a.m.-midnight; Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Dinner for two, $50-$100, food only. Full bar.