Chef Tyson Cole and company continue redefining 'revelatory' at Uchiko
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., Nov. 12, 2010
Uchiko4200 N. Lamar #140, 916-4808
Sunday-Thursday, 5-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 5-11pm; happy hour, 5-6:30pm daily
"Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together and running over." The joyous and overflowing abundance of this image from the gospel of Luke is irresistible, and it describes, better than any other words I can think of, what it is like to experience Uchiko.
Translated as "child of Uchi," Uchiko is the long-awaited north-of-the-river Uchi location, which seats parties larger than five, takes reservations, and offers a private dining room. After quietly opening in mid-July, Uchiko is poised to provide North Austin with the award-winning Japanese cuisine that propelled Uchi to the pinnacle of the Chronicle Readers Poll.
From the first glass of sake, deliberately overpoured to spill over the top of your glass and fill the bamboo serving box, an openhanded and expansive generosity is stamped into every aspect of Uchiko's operation.
"We love to surprise people," says chef Tyson Cole, "and we love to coax people to ever so slightly push their culinary boundaries. We do a staggering number of 'comps' every night ... but what is better than having a dish show up at your table with the words, 'The chef sent this over'? After all, we have been so fortunate. We love to give back to our customers, they have given us so much."
This spirit of generosity is no sham; it extends in every direction, including professional recognition. Although Cole is the chef/owner, his protégé Paul Qui has taken the helm at Uchiko as executive chef. Under Qui's direction, Uchiko delivers the same bright, clean culinary focus and graceful blending of tradition and innovation that catapulted Uchi to national prominence. But Qui isn't resting on those laurels; along with Cole and Executive Dessert Chef Philip Speer, he's creating a menu as exciting as Uchi's has ever been.
One Qui signature is the subtle addition of lemongrass, fish sauce, chiles, garlic, Kaffir lime, and other Thai and Vietnamese elements to the Uchi flavor profile. The Sakama Mushi ($20) is a good example, a dish in which tender white bass, galangal, tiny Korean mushrooms, grilled tomato, fish stock, and Thai basil are all encased in a Japanese paper "purse," which is then grilled. When the paper is loosened, the clean flavors of the fish and delicate, matchsticklike mushrooms are scented with the basil and ginger broth. Another unforgettable dish, Ika Yaki ($12), a small composed plate of fresh, roasted squid topped with Korean pepper, sliced green apple, fresh sorrel, and red Thai curry, resets the bar for the adjective "revelatory."
Although it shares only a handful of dishes with Uchi, the menu continues the Uchi tradition of precision, freshness, and disarming purity. The watermelon sashimi ($6) is a good example: Rectangles of cold watermelon topped with fresh cilantro, lime juice, coriander, and a light touch of Maldon salt, the dish is fresh, light, and stimulating. Good as it is, it pales beside the roasted golden beets ($8), a dish that cannot be adequately described without using the phrase "artistic triumph." In it, golden rectangles of chilled beet are served on an impasto of tart Skyr yogurt, touched with fennel pollen, and topped with flat-leaf parsley and acacia honey. Decorative golden beet crisps, vertically placed, provide textural variety while emphasizing the sunny flavor of the beets.
The coconut-milk crepe ($16) is another Thai-influenced success. Hearty and filling, the warm crepe is stuffed, sandwich-style, with freshly cooked blue prawns, Thai basil, and mint, creating a lovely intensity of flavor. The cumin-scented seared scallop medallions ($26), arranged on a layer of Skyr yogurt and dotted with wild char roe and dainty, cloverlike fresh wasabi leaves, veer back into "unforgettable" territory.
Qui and Cole have introduced a great deal of exciting innovation into the sushi and sashimi as well. The Nasu is one example: a filet of Japanese eggplant seasoned with miso and grilled to a voluptuous tenderness ($2.50). The Sake is another; made with Atlantic salmon, preserved lemon, Skyr yogurt, and mint, it brings the clean, classic elements of salinity, citrus, and mint into exquisite focus ($3.50). The Tiger Cry Roll ($16) combines grilled Wagyu steak, cilantro, roasted red pepper, avocado, and toasted rice, completely winning me over to the concept of beef sushi.
The dessert list at Uchiko features both palate-refreshing sorbets and sherbets ($4) and the deconstructed and composed creations of Speer, which resemble highly textured landscapes. The sweet corn sorbet ($9) features polenta custard, caramel salt, lemon crisps, cornmeal "soil," and dots of lemon curd, all variations on the flavors of sweet corn and lemon in startling combination. The current dessert special is a deconstructed pumpkin cheesecake ($9), featuring kombucha semifreddo, toasted white chocolate ganache, gingersnap "soil," and cream cheese sorbet – reminiscent of a Dalí painting, though considerably more enjoyable.