Unini? Panuni?

Monday, April 7th, 2008 | All Things, Drinks, Eats

El Quinto Pino — the follow-up effort from the team behind successful tapas bar Tía Pol — has collected raves from just about every media outlet in the city since it opened last year. So it was with great anticipation that I made arrangements to meet MLF at 24th and Ninth this evening. When we arrived, the high-ceilinged room was packed with an after-work crowd, but almost right away, we managed to snap up a pair of seats near the front door. It was a stroke of good fortune: there are stools set up along the curved white marble-topped bar (behind which is tucked the diminutive kitchen) and several more scattered around the shallow-shelved perimeter, but otherwise EQP is standing room only. The food and drink offerings are as heavily edited as the decor: the entire handwritten menu fit on two chalkboards displayed above the bar.

Which brings us to the uni panini. I cannot recall a single menu item that’s been showered with as much praise as chef-owner Alex Raij’s spiny sea urchin creation. (Cumulatively, however, it’s possible that the dishes on the Momofuku Ko tasting menu have received more breathless coverage.) Not everyone’s a fan, though; I’ve read some criticism that this sandwich is overhyped and offers poor value.

Hard to disagree with the first charge — The Times‘s Frank Bruni called it “the sandwich of [his] life” in his 2007 year-end review; food blogger Andrea Strong likened it to “really good, hot, sweaty sex” — and upon analysis, this delicate sliver of a sandwich does seem fairly simple and easily replicated at home: scallops of bright orange uni gently pressed into a slightly crisped ficelle from LIC’s Tom Cat Bakery, that’s been smeared with a kicky Korean mustard oil-spiked butter. Not hearty eats, by any means, but the synergy of briny, delicately sweet, custard-like roe (actually: gonads) and warm crunchy-chewy bread seemed to me the pinnacle of deliciousness. I’ve eaten more — if not necessarily better — for less money, and I’ve eaten worse for more money. Not as often, though, have I eaten less for more money. But is what averages out to about $2.50 a bite really so extravagant? (Sushi, after all, is in this price range… and often more.) I didn’t think so when considering my single $15 panini, though $30 for two panini (or $45 for three… which I could have eaten, happily) might seem to approach exorbitant levels for a place with no true tables. Personally, I didn’t mind, and was happy to wile away the hour and a half, savoring the bites, the good wine and the company of my friend.

Of course there is more to El Quinto Pino’s menu than the uni panini. MLF is not a fan of seafood (so sadly, no Soldaditos de Pavia — salt cod fritters — for us), so she employed the assistance of our friendly bartender in deciding between the two other non-uni sandwiches. Without hesitation, the server recommended the Pringa — a combination of braised meats, morcia (blood sausage) and sautéed onions. (Heartier than the uni panini, for what it’s worth.) Ed Levine may disagree: he named the third, the Serranito (serrano ham sandwich), one of his Ten Most Pleasure-Inducing Dishes of 2007.

There was a dish of fine olives, and this intriguingly tasty Berenjena con Miel: pillowy cylinders of deep-fried eggplant, drizzled with honey and topped with bonito flakes.

In her recent round-up of seven sandwiches, The Times‘s Julia Moskin deemed Raij’s uni panini “not a real New York sandwich… [lacking] the compressed, complete pleasures of the Cuban sandwich, the heft and chew of a fully loaded gyro, the cool crunch of a Vietnamese banh mi.” New York or no, I’d go back for it… and the salt cod and the Torrezznos — Spanish pork belly cracklings.

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There are 6 Comments ... Unini? Panuni?

May 2, 2008

My mouth is watering, damn you, vipnyc!

May 2, 2008

Okay. You just made me decide that I wanted to go.

May 2, 2008

does anyone know anyone who preps and cooks uni in their own home?

May 2, 2008

I’ve seen sea urchin at Citarella… and the Japanese and Korean markets carry packages of uni as well? But I’ve never brought any home.
Perhaps we should pick up some and try recreating this sandwich! As far as I can tell, there are only the four ingredients: the bread, mustard oil, butter and uni.

May 5, 2008

i found the uni panini too rich and a bit strange. i agree, it’s not all that. i like their boquerones though. they should stick to the classics.

Nathan Kong
May 12, 2008

That looks really good.

Go for it ...