The pasta arrives last, after the Scottish salmon in yuzu ponzu, the karaage and the bluefin tuna belly with shiitake salsa. It comes a full 45 minutes after the tsukune, cooked over natural oak charcoal.
Our server informs us that every component of the uni pasta is made from scratch. “It is worth it,” he says. “You will have room.”
When it finally emerges from the kitchen, the bowl of pasta is the color of a Japanese maple tree in the fall. Two uni tongues rest lazily across the top, just shy of melting into the noodles below. Freshly grated bottarga blankets the dish in vibrant yellow flakes. The bowl smells of a pleasant ocean breeze.
The fanfare most gourmands reserve for uni, the roe-producing sex organs of the sea urchin, is often lost on me, but it is hard to not be enamored with the uni pasta at Robata En restaurant in Las Vegas.
The restaurant is off the Strip in one of the many shopping centers on Spring Mountain Road in Chinatown. It should come as no surprise that some of the best places to eat in Vegas are here, and this center is a great place to start. Two of the city’s most lauded restaurants, Sparrow + Wolf and Lamaii, flank Robata En.
Owners Joon and Jemma Yi opened the Japanese restaurant in late 2020 with executive chef Ramir DeCastro.
“Everybody in the restaurant loves uni,” DeCastro said on a recent afternoon. “We specifically love Santa Barbara uni, because we believe it has the most uni-est taste.”
DeCastro and his team had been looking to make an uni pasta dish for quite some time, inspired by the AAA-grade uni he procures from Southern California. He searched for the right noodles, but without the perfect pasta readily available, he decided to craft his own — half-inch elastic strands made with Jidori egg yolks.
To create the base for the pasta sauce, he makes stock from Maine lobsters. Then, he gradually layers a series of flavors in a pan, sautéing garlic and parsley in olive oil, adding chopped Calabrian chiles, deglazing the pan with sake and finally adding the stock.
DeCastro cooks his fresh pasta in salted water for exactly two minutes. While the pasta cooks, he adds a mixture of uni and butter to his pan. He dumps in the drained pasta and cooks everything together for an additional four minutes, until the sauce is reduced.
He adds the uni tongues and finishes the dish with crispy parsley breadcrumbs and Jidori egg yolk “bottarga,” which he cures for days and grates right over the top.
“It just gives it a nuttiness and a level of umami on top of the dish,” he said.
The lobster stock provides a fortifying backbone for the sauce, shaping the salty ocean flavor of the uni and slicing through the richness of butter with a briny bite. Subtle heat from the threads of chile sneak up on you.
The noodles have the perfect chew. They tangle around the luxurious sauce, each strand covered in a glossy sheen.
This is uni to the 10th power. I’m already plotting my next trip to the shopping center.
4480 Spring Mountain Road, Suite 500, Las Vegas, (702) 331-0619, robataen.com
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.