In multiple ways, the most popular dish at Jason Vincent's smash-hit restaurant Giant was one that the chef-owner and his partner Ben Lustbader swore they would never do. The fried uni shooter—the first item on the menu and one they estimate at least half of their customers order—is a spin on an ingredient they deemed too trendy. It's also something they need to tell customers how to eat. If they didn't, customers would get it all over themselves.
"We toyed around with the idea of not having it on the menu," Vincent says, "So if people go online they don't see that first thing and kind of roll their eyes and be like, 'oh, this trendy hipster place with uni' and put us in this box."
But Vincent and Lustbader are glad they added it and they tell people how to eat it: "There was one guy who was sitting at (table) 17 who was going like this with his napkin (makes a frantic brushing motion on his shirt/chest) and I'm like 'what'd you do?'" Vincent says. "And he goes, 'I fucked up.' And I'm like, 'I just told you what to do!' And he goes, 'I know, and I was listening, and then I did exactly the opposite.'"
"It's a pretty interesting juxtaposition for ourselves that this whole thing we talked about not doing (telling people how to eat) we immediately did," he continues. "Which is kind of cool because it shows us internally that rules are meant to be broken."
What's also pretty cool for Vincent and Lustbader: Giant sold 2,000 fried uni shooters in its first six weeks in business alone. And only that one customer got it all over himself.
The idea for the dish spawned from Vincent's brainstorm of a fried pasta stuffed with clam sauce. But he couldn't get it right. "It had the trifecta—not only did it taste bad, but it was grainy and it felt gross in your mouth, and then you couldn't get the taste out of your mouth later," he says. "(Ben) wouldn't even taste it." He thought about subbing uni for the crab, but balked because "uni is the 'now' ingredient." Eventually, he sought help from Momotaro chef Mark Hellyar on how to balance its flavor and decided to move forward with it.
Despite its rampant popularity, the dish is a simple one. Vincent and Lustbader combine gochujang (Korean fermented hot pepper paste), tamari (Japanese soy sauce), condensed milk and lots of butter. After pureeing, they add Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin) and pulse it quick enough so it remains raw. Then they scoop it into balls, roll it in flour, and let them sit for at least 24 hours to allow the fat and protein to form a bond in order to create a shell when its fried. They make 15 pounds at once, which lasts roughly a week and a half.
Once that's done, the balls go into a cornstarch/egg white mixture followed by a secret breading. After a quick dip in the fryer, they're plated with julienned cucumbers in tamari, rice wine vinegar and chili oil.
The difference between the dish—one of the most buzzworthy items to a hit a Chicago restaurant menu this year—and a traditional uni shooter, besides its solid form, is what Vincent describes as "like uni butter for pasta or noodles." Customers can't get enough of them, as some even order more rounds later in the meal following its customary position as a starter.
"Let's be completely honest and call a spade a spade: It is deep-fried butter," Vincent says. "If someone is like, 'I could eat a whole basket of those,' I'd be like, 'you'd poop a lot. You'd poop and it wouldn't be fun.'" Pro tip: Despite temptation, fried uni shooters are best in moderation.