Purple Sea Urchins: From Mendocino Menace to Delicious Dish

By Emma Krasov. Photography by Yuri Krasov.

Mendocino Coast Purple Urchin Festival, that was happening for the first time ever in the United States earlier this month, attracted quite a crowd of foodies and ocean lovers to one of the most beautiful locations in Northern California.

In Mendocino County, the ultimate year-round vacation destination with its cooling ocean breezes and meditative serenity of the ancient redwood groves, summer months are especially enjoyable, so it’s no wonder that many public events are scheduled in the most popular season for travel adventures. 

Purple sea urchin, a menace of the Northern Pacific when uncontrollably procreating, devastates underwater kelp forests which serve as habitat and food source for numerous sea creatures, like star fish and abalone. By consuming enormous amounts of kelp, a large brown algae that thrives in shallow salt water, just in the last decade or so sea urchins managed to reduce previously abundant vegetation to mere 10% of normal growth.

On the Festival weekend, several local organizations—Mendocino Area Parks Association, Watermen’s Alliance, and Noyo Center for Marine Science implemented educational and hands-on activities to help the public learn about the fragility of the oceanic ecosystem and the sustainable measures to remove the excess population of purple sea urchins.

One of the free events took part on a sunny and breezy Saturday morning at Van Damme State Beach, where Josh Russo from the Waterman’s Alliance, and Greg Fonts, an international free dive competitor of The Freedive Shop demonstrated how to crack and clean urchins with a dull abalone iron, thick rubber gloves, and water.  

Another free event included a preview of a documentary “Sequoias of the Sea” by Natasha Benjamin and Ana Blanco, dedicated to kelp deforestation, and a message from Sheila Semans, Executive Director of the Noyo Center for Marine Science, regarding the sea urchin danger to the California Coast, and possible solutions to the problem. 

Luckily, the notoriously prickly creatures, colored in all shades of beautiful purple, are known as a delicacy in many world cuisines, especially in Japanese sushi culture under the name of “uni.” For the first U.S. Sea Urchin Festival’s culinary program, Urchinomics, a restorative seafood company, focused on removing the purple menace from the ocean floor, had supplemented area restaurants with high quality uni, featured on the local chefs’ menus in various intriguing preparations.  

A wonderful sake pairing seminar, Uni & Sake, took place at the historic Little River Inn, presented by World Sake Imports, based in Honolulu, HI. Sake expert Kerry Tamura introduced the best Ginjo, Daiginjo, and Junmai polished rice vodkas from different Japanese prefectures, accompanied by savory morsels prepared by the hotel’s Executive Chef, Marc Dym.  

For an exciting array of sakes, from floral and fruity, creamy and flavorful, to herbal, dry and crisp, the matching food bites included Uni Deviled Egg with pickled wild radish pods, Chawanmushi of slipper lobster tail and trumpet mushrooms topped with uni, and Arancini, dubbed “unicini,” since the delectable fried nori rice balls were filled with decadent uni velouté.

“Fort Bragg [the largest city on Mendocino Coast] has long been a major producer of sea urchin in the United States, “ said Cally Dym, fifth-generation owner of Little River Inn, “but virtually all of the product has been shipped out of the area, and until recently not a single restaurant offered uni on their menu… we think now is the perfect time to ‘Taste the Place’ and expand our understanding of the purple sea urchin… delicious and in itself a reason to create an urchin festival. What fascinates me is the role purple urchin plays in the ecosystem of the Northwest Pacific Ocean, and telling that story to festival goers.”

In the town of Elk, Sibo Restaurant at Elk Cove Inn & Spa, helmed bythe Chef/Owner Victor Passalacqua, created a special uni menu of exquisite delights.

Butter-fried Brioche with celeriac and caviar was topped with tender urchins, and dozed in sea urchin cream sauce. Sea Urchin Flan with light lobster and cognac sauce was served right in a spiky purple shell, while Sea Urchin and Mussel Risotto emitted a subtle fragrance of porcini jus. Lightly folded Homemade Ravioli with Dungeness crab and butternut squash filling and sea urchin toppings were smothered in sea urchin and cognac sauce for ultimate indulgence!

Other restaurants in the area also served creative urchin-centered dinners, and different Mendocino County inns and hotels offered travelers great deals of free nights and discounted room rates.    

Little River Inn, a prominent hospitality establishment behind the Festival, provided facilities and staff for many scheduled activities, while the Little River Inn Restaurant continued to serve its seasonally inspired menu of farm produce and fresh catch.  

Starting with creative cocktails, like Coastal Mirage (vodka, elderflower, Aztec bitters, lemon, mint), Chef’s Kiss (rye whiskey, dry sherry, Kina, lemon) and especially Pink Whale (gin, pink peppercorn, honey, lemon, egg white) everything in the restaurant’s dining room and its garden seating under a large white tent is fresh, local, sustainable, and utterly enjoyable.

Enticing small plates include Early Girl Caprese and Creamy Lobster Mac ‘n’ Cheese.  Large plates of Thai Inspired Rock Cod, fried whole and crispy with sweet chili glaze, and Sunday Sugo with braised pork gravy, kale and Strozzapreti pasta are highly satisfying, followed by an air-light Chocolate Mousse with Kahlua whipped cream.   

Staying at Little River Inn, a family-owned and operated for more than 80 years 65-room resort, is a true Mendocino Coast experience, complete with picture-perfect ocean views, spacious and tastefully decorated guestrooms, meeting and special event spaces, spa, well-maintained flower beds and green lawns all over the campus, a nine-hole Audubon-certified golf course, professional tennis courts, and family- and pet-friendly accommodations.     

Little River Inn is located at 7751 California 1, Little River, CA 95456. Call 707-937-5942 or visit https://www.littleriverinn.com/.

 To learn more about the Urchin Festival and Mendocino Area Parks Association, visit https://www.mendoparks.org/urchin-festival.

Elk Cove Inn & Spa: https://elkcoveinn.com/.