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This trendy ingredient has become the foie gras of the sea

Uni tray service at Brothers and Sisters. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
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The ultimate status symbol, if you’re hanging out in Brothers and Sisters at the Line hotel, is a $90 tray of squiggly sea urchin. The uni — as the edible part of spiky sea urchin is called in Japanese and on most menus — is served with some traditional caviar accoutrements (chopped hard-boiled egg and onion) as well as some novel ones (green apple and whipped pork fat). You can arrange your own bite on some cream puff shells.

“There’s no wrong way to do it,” said chef Erik Bruner-Yang. “You can have your fun with it.”

Time was, uni was found mainly in sushi restaurants. But the creamy, briny delicacy is growing more popular as customers come to know it.

“They’re no longer a Japanese ingredient,” said Siren chef John Critchley, who uses uni in a blue crab custard with arctic surf clams. “You’re seeing them all the way from tacos to on top of oysters.”

Uni looks like bright orange tongues, and that’s what some chefs call individual pieces. But that’s not what you’re eating: Uni is a sea urchin’s gonads. That’s why it’s sometimes called sea urchin roe, and why chefs serve it with other types of eggs: caviar, quail egg, hen egg. How can you resist egg-on-egg-on-egg?

At Himitsu, the uni toast comes with soft scrambled eggs flavored like the Japanese omelet called tamago, as well as salmon roe and uni on top of brioche. Serving the urchin with “something very familiar” makes people more interested in trying it, said chef Kevin Tien. “A lot of people eat scrambled eggs and toast.”

To become an uni connoisseur, treat it like oysters. Knowledgeable diners can distinguish flavor profiles of uni by geography. Uni from Maine are “the most funky,” said chef Tony Messina of the Boston restaurant Uni. “They have a seawater gaminess thing going on.” California uni have a cleaner flavor, he said. And Hokkaido uni from Japan are considered the best. “You get a little bit of the gaminess, a lot of the creaminess.” At his restaurant, guests can try all three.

Uni is also used to enhance pasta, or at Bourbon Steak, it becomes a binder for a fancified version of classic crab imperial. Chef Drew Adams, who compares uni to a ripe avocado, has also made an uni hollandaise and even sweet-and-salty uni ice cream.

Sure, some people might find urchin gonads an acquired taste. But for seafood lovers, the briny flavor can enhance any dish.

“You have the fresh ocean taste, you have the minerals, you have a creaminess, you have a crispness,” said Critchley. “I think very few sea creatures have that kind of all-encompassing flavor.”

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