Uchibā Is Serving Vintage With a Twist
Review: Sushi, scallops, and surprises from the newest Uchi offshoot in Downtown
Reviewed by Jessi Cape, Fri., Feb. 2, 2024
Recently I tried my hand at homemade sushi, and despite pulling it off with unanimous family approval, it’s probably an annual endeavor at most. Sure, I could try again with fewer iterations and way more plastic wrap, but why spend hours of frustration when I’m already paying a premium to live in this city with sushi aplenty? “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur,” right? The Uchi family brand now boasts three local variants, each distinctly excellent reminders that sushi chefs train for life, and I’m good at other things.
Both comfortable and innovative, the newest offshoot, Uchibā, evokes a “vintage with a twist,” midcentury modern vibe, like experiencing state-of-the-art film technology from the smooth curves of a classic Eames chair. Located at Second and Nueces, Uchibā, which loosely translates to Uchi Bar, is “izakaya-inspired.” This autumn 2023-born cocktail bar and restaurant offers a fairly large menu in an atmosphere that is chic and refined, not stuffy. The Downtown hustle and bustle fades on your way down a micro-hall to the host stand, where an efficient team either leads you in or, as with our second visit, offers an hors d’oeuvres and cocktail order while you wait. You’ll pass a lounge area near the room’s focal point, an impressive bar with sky-high selections of great bottles – Japanese whiskeys, Casa Azul, and other curated libations. You could imagine Peggy Olson chatting there.
Nice warm lighting spotlights cocktails like the well-balanced Citrus Old-Fashioned and the refreshing strawberry Ranch Water. A kickass playlist was on during both visits – and even with a full house, the noise level works. Well done, Uchibā playlist-maker, with your Thundercat and MF Doom.
On our first visit, we sat at a two-top in a cozy cove, and that turned out to be our preference. The more lively sushi bar is better for dining solo or a quick visit, but I did enjoy the barstool dimensions. Our server was Justin, a joyful expert who marked up a separate gluten-free menu for me.
On that subject: While Uchibā is definitely not a gluten-free restaurant, I was impressed with their level of care. Even with a double dietary restriction, I felt confident my order would check the necessary boxes. Each team member ran through all dishes delivered, clearly indicating yea/nay so I was doubly aware to steer clear of selections aimed for my no-restriction partner. The kitchen used gluten-free soy and ponzu for me, a really fantastic surprise. As always and forever, before dining you should always check with the restaurant on your specific allergy stuff.
Starting with the shishitos – a messy operation thanks to its drippy, spicy sauce – was a bold and exciting entry, and we almost reordered it the second visit. Instead, their iconic Brussels sprouts won out and were, of course, damn tasty. (Note: I’ve also attempted to re-create these at home, and again, leave it to these professionals.) Another family-brand hit, the traditional hama chili was bright and cool; and the counterpart kanpachi (amberjack) crudo had a nice chew, more protein-forward than melt in your mouth. I was thrilled with their grilled chicken thigh yakitori iteration. The elevated Buffalo sauce-drizzled skewers pack a punch with a perfect balance of spiciness, char, and acidity. Switching to sake, we prefer a crisp variety and ended up with the Kirinzan Classic and Blue Hue on separate visits. Our lower-price-point preference had a small window of alignment with their higher-price-point selections.
My deep love of scallops, crab, and lobster makes me a shellfish junkie, and Uchibā’s cute namahotate (diver scallop) nigiri landed with a wombo combo flavor/texture that was something of a divine experience. Also great: the torched scallop, which reaffirmed that sea marshmallows are perfection. The spicy tuna roll was filling and fresh, but its charred negi aïoli got mixed reviews: One of us was dipping her finger and the other was questioning why anyone would include a mayo-adjacent dip with tuna and pear. Only on-menu during our first visit, the lobster gunkan earned a “holy shit that’s good” gold medal. Translated loosely, gunkan is “battleship,” and the hand-rolled delicacy is wrapped in seaweed and topped with various tasties, this time lobster, to resemble its namesake. If it’s available, get it.
As for my partner’s notes on those gluten-y, beefy, pineapple-y bites: Both the Hot Fried Chicken Bun, which has its own Reddit thread discussion, and the Tiger’s Eye pork belly bao, which needed a jalapeño-esque element, were fine, but not particularly memorable. The 72-hour short rib received high praise for its char, buttery texture, and simplicity. His favorite was the musubi, a classic Hawaiian bite similar to Japanese onigiri with seared glazed spam and rice, nori-wrapped, and topped with pineapple relish. I’ve been researching musubi recipes for an upcoming birthday, but now the bar’s been raised a gazillion-fold.
During his carnivore kicks, I dove into the veg options. My kinoko was a meaty trumpet mushroom nigiri, deeply savory – a major win. I’d return for this bite. The watermelon and feta nigiri, tangier than sweet, offered a refreshing conclusion, acting as a “meal’s end” sweet treat.
Uchibā makes my new favorite dessert: a generous portion of crushed blackberry snow (think extremely fine shaved ice) with a spherical core of passion fruit sorbet, all topped with a perky coconut lime foam. Although we skipped dessert in Round Two, we peeked at the neighbors’ crispy fried tteokbokki. Their sushi chef described it as a sort of Japanese churro situation, which appeared to check out.
Two notes, neither to be belabored: Both visits involved an odd restroom experience. On my first visit, it was in messy, less-than-ideal condition, possibly due to a random gnarly patron on a busy night. When we returned the next time, it was much cleaner and put-together, but things went haywire when an AI voice looping “fire in the building” over the intercom joined a blaring alarm. Returning to the restaurant, I was somewhat alarmed at, well, the lack of alarm; turns out, this had happened a few times recently. It wasn’t upsetting, but it was strange to have a siren literally wailing overhead while sipping sake and waiting on an explanation. The head sushi chef eventually thanked us for our patience and offered a gift-card mea culpa.
Overall, the food and drinks were delicious, the service enthusiastic and knowledgeable, the atmosphere chic, and – unsurprisingly – the price point a real doozy. The Uchi brand can be counted on to consider all the dining-activated senses, as fine dining ought to, and this new addition, Uchibā, delivers on that expectation of excellence. When you’re spending a lot of hard-earned dollars, it’s nice to feel that the recipients actually care that you’re there. It’s even better when the ambience transports you to another world.Uchibā
601 W. Second