Laura Hayes

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The Dish: Uni (Sea Urchin) Grilled Cheese

Price: $16

Where to Get It: Ellē; 3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW; (202) 652-0040; eatatelle.com

What It Is: Think of uni as the foie gras of the sea—it’s so luscious, a little goes a long way. Chef Brad Deboy splays out about six tongues of Santa Barbara sea urchin atop a grilled cheese that’s anything but ordinary. He sprinkles raw sugar on the uni tongues before he brûlées them using a torch, causing the briny, umami flavor to seep ever so slightly into the house-baked focaccia that’s stuffed with creamy brie and funk raclette cheeses. To finish the dish, Deboy sprinkles the grilled cheese with sea salt and fermented chili powder, which he makes from the pulp of hot sauce featuring habanero peppers and peachy mama peppers from Maryland farmer Mike Mustard.

The Story: Deboy was looking for an appropriate amuse-bouche for Ellē’s New Year’s Eve soiree earlier this week. “We like to do fun stuff that we’d like to eat,” he says. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did a creative grilled cheese?’” After determining that cheddar and seafood are flavor foes, he selected two creamy cheeses that would best compliment the uni without overpowering it. “I love making grilled cheese more than most things on earth,” Deboy continues. “You feel like a kid.” 

What It Tastes Like: Some say uni tastes like putting a penny under your tongue, especially when you’re tasting the U.S. varieties that are more pungent than Japan’s sweeter, creamier species. While there’s a discernible minerality that’s cut by the bread and cheese in Deboy’s decadent after school snack, explaining the taste of the ocean treasure remains as difficult as describing a shape or color that doesn’t exist. Try it and if you don’t like it, chances are your dining companions will be eager to finish your order. 

Note that the uni grilled cheese will only be available during Ellē’s busier weekend nights. As for this weekend, Deboy says there are a few orders available by request tonight (Friday). The sandwich will be on the dinner menu Saturday and Sunday.