This week, in my review of Tipple & Brine in Sherman Oaks, I came across a dish that seemed like a waste of perfectly good seafood: uni on toast with avocado. The problem was not that it tasted bad — in fact, the taste was quite good. The problem was that all you could taste was the avocado and lemon, and the uni was totally lost.
Sometimes, two things we love do not go together. Like you and your high school boyfriend, or peppermint and citrus. Uni and toast is one of these things. ]
Despite this, it's a dish that's increasingly popular. When reflecting upon the uni toast at Tipple & Brine, I realized that it was one of many versions I've had in the past couple of years. I've seen uni on toast at Black Hogg, Paiche, Faith and Flower, Bestia, Alma and beyond.
Its prevalence is somewhat natural, given that uni is the ingredient of the moment and toast is the medium of the moment. I think even I was so enamored of the idea that it took me a few experiences with the combination before I realized the fatality of the flaw. Fish on toast is fantastic in many, many forms, including other roe-type situations. And I love uni, so what's not to like? It seems like a natural progression from sardines on toast to caviar on toast to uni on toast. But the very thing that makes those other things so delicious is missing from this combination, and that is strength of flavor.
Uni is, by its nature, an incredibly delicate flavor. Things-on-toast, generally, benefit from strong or sharp flavors as topping, otherwise the bread takes control. There are exceptions to this, of course — burrata on toast is also very common these days, and is wonderful despite its mild flavor, but that's because you can really pile it on and revel in the milky gush of the thing. While it's possible the same could be true of uni, you'd need about $40 worth of urchin to achieve the same result.
As it is, one of two things happen. Either the uni is overwhelmed by the taste of the toast, or another flavor is employed to get that sharp effect, and that flavor does the overwhelming.
Thus far, I've come across only one exception, and that is the “eggs on toast” at République. In that case, soft scrambled eggs are piled on toast, topped by uni. Somehow, the relative blandness of the eggs (a good thing in this instance) allows the flavor of the uni to come through. I'm still not 100% convinced that I wouldn't rather just eat the uni on its own, but at least here it's not totally obliterated, and that makes me believe that chef Walter Manzke actually thought about the combination and its balance.
All of this falls into the territory of nitpicking, but it also points out one of the downsides of ingredient trends, even when we love the ingredient in question. Chefs start throwing the ingredient of the moment onto just about anything. Uni is a fantastic component to many different dishes, but for the most part, toast ain't one of them.