Few things in life could induce me to languish on a hot summer sidewalk at 4:45 p.m., breathing automobile exhaust and waiting for the doors of a restaurant to swing open. One of those rarities is the Shigoku oyster I scored at Uchi Houston last week: a single West Coast bivalve nested in a deeply cupped, fluted shell. Glinting on top was a miniature snowdrift of yuzu-and-shallot ice; a tiny green bud (the tip of an onion scape) peeked out, shy as a crocus.
I chopsticked it up, thinking that a $4 mouthful had better be awfully good. And that’s when my palate and my brain started spinning. That innocent-looking ice popped with citrus and onion savor, playing up the sweetness of the oyster, cool and crystalline against the slippery meat. Right at the end, the onion tip delivered a pungent ping, just as I realized I had been served a brilliant modern play on oysters with mignonette.
Mignonette, a shallot and vinegar sauce, usually overpowers the oyster. Not so here, where the oniony ice had just the right balance, its tartness keen but held neatly in check.
I’ve relived that oyster moment many times since. That’s become a habit with me as I have worked my way through the contemporary Japanese menus at this 7-month-old Austin transplant, the third restaurant in chef Tyson Cole’s mini-empire.
Cole won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest Award in 2011, the first Texas chef in 19 years to do so (Houston’s Robert del Grande was the last). His protégé at Uchiko, Paul Qui, won the same award this spring. I wondered if the Uchi brain trust — which includes native Houstonian Philip Speers, pastry-chef-in-chief and director of culinary operations — could duplicate the peculiar genius of the Austin restaurants, where I’ve had some spectacular meals.
To my growing amazement, I’ve found that they have.
Say what you want about Uchi Houston: that it’s infernally difficult to get a prime-time reservation; that you have to show up at opening to nab one of the spaces reserved for walk-ins; that you’ll wind up with sticker shock, hundreds of dollars poorer, if you lose your head and order a lot.
Complain that it’s noisy and jammed, or that the sepia-tinted murk of the dining room won’t let you see the extraordinary beauty of the food. Grouse about the difficulty of getting your head around the multi-part menu, with its separate sheets of daily specials and happy-hour bargains and its unconventional format of “Cool Tastings” and “Hot Tastings” and the like.
All true, and all pretty much irrelevant in the face of such masterful food. I can count the dishes I haven’t liked here on a couple of fingers, the glitches of an ill-fated happy-hour visit early in the restaurant’s life. Further on, I’ve found the kitchen to be an unfailing source of disciplined and intricate cuisine — whether hot or cold, whether from the sushi counter or the cooking line. The intelligent wine and sake program, coupled with a smart staff that seems genuinely engaged and proud of their common enterprise, makes the experience even more satisfying.
Each bite here seems to be engineered with the precision of a tiny jet engine. That applies to a simple piece of perfectly molded kochi (or flathead fish) sushi from the day’s specials list, pin-dotted with a pickled plum paste that makes the most of its mild flavor; or to a complex, parchment-wrapped package of cobia steamed with snippets of Thai chile, lime, the most delicate wild mushrooms and the surprise of golden raisins. The balance of sweet and sour, salt and hot, land and sea makes the meticulously textured fish fly high.
On another night, the parchment-steamed fish (look for the “gama” preparation) might be red snapper pooled with a lilting green curry and spangled with wheels of hot green chile, crisp radish batons and a sinuous curl of pickled radish. Big fun.
There are several ways I like to eat at Uchi Houston, and they all involve sitting at the sushi counter, where I can appreciate the colors of the exquisitely plated food. (Very occasionally, it is too exquisitely plated, with superfluous nasturtium flowers or just one too many ingredients, but that’s a quirk I’ll live with.) At the counter, the sushi chef before you superintends your meal, while one of the servers minds your drink orders; a roving band of servers and kitchen staff pops by to explain the cooked or composed dishes as they materialize.
Explain they will: in intricate detail, at a brisk clip, which sometimes leaves me trying to grasp what I’ve just heard. I like the explanatory service style here, and I’m not shy about asking for a repeat of the information. But some of the more practiced diners I know bridle at being told how to eat the dishes (“be sure to get some of the candied basil crystals with each bite”), finding it presumptuous. I’m fine with advice about getting the most out of a dish, and I suspect that newbies to the Uchi experience will also appreciate the level of detail and staff education.
To snag my counter seat, I try to show up no later than 5:30 on a weekday; so far it has worked like a charm. I usually order off the separate daily specials sheet, starting out with a few pieces of sushi: ishidai or knifejaw, perhaps, a whitefish with an unusual, sticky-satin texture that is more like scallop, crested with deep rose striations; or three-line grunt with a pop of green onion paste; or blue fusilier, a white fish with a deep mineral tang.
Then I pick from the day’s assortment of cold and hot composed dishes, like that little shigoku oyster I admired so much, or a risky sounding seared scallop dish that improbably manages to make coconut powder, black truffle, peach gelée and pale asparagus shaved to translucence all work together in harmony.
One day I might be in the mood for a jewel-like heirloom tomato salad; another, a dramatic set-piece by chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards, the seven-year Uchi Austin veteran who runs the kitchen here, in which a lush marrow bone transmogrifies into the kind of forest-floor landscape he says has long fascinated him. Mussels in their fierce black shells rear up from the trough of bone, which is overgrown with greenery: curls of fiddlehead fern, curly spikes of escarole, dusky leaves of herb and baby lettuce. It’s an astonishing meld of earth and sea, visual and cerebral and weirdly inevitable.
I might finish with a few more pieces of sushi, chased by the last of a glass of William Fevre chablis or Lucien Albrecht pinot blanc, two of the food- and seafood-friendly whites from the well-edited list. Or, if I’m up for a challenge, with one of the painstakingly constructed desserts, the kind that employ ash and rubbles and soils and dehydrated chips of this or that.
When they click, these clockwork sweets have an exotic allure. Cantaloupe sherbet with a tart, intriguingly gritty freeze of buttermilk sorbet gets a floral note of elderflower, and it’s magic. Another special looks straight out of Mordor, its goth-black sesame sorbet set off by blood-red tiles of translucent rhubarb leather and coconut crème fraîche.
Occasionally, I’ll miss the point. I adore the satiny chocolate-milk base of the fried milk dessert, but the appeal of fried “milk” nuggets the shape of tater tots, with a sweet liquid center, is lost on me. So is murky-tasting lime-ash sorbet, although the rest of the confection’s moving parts, down to the last tiny Thai-chile meringue and lacy chocolate crisp, are spectacular.
The kind of personally chosen, mix-and-match tasting I’ve described can run to $75 and more once, beverage, tax and tip are figured in. In my opinion, it’s worth it. So is the 10-course tasting menu for two that is market priced around $180 or so, and which culls from regular menu classics along with the best of the day’s specials, plus selected pieces of sushi and dessert. If you’re feeling flush, that option (or the less expensive six-course tasting for two) is the best way to get a feel for what Uchi Houston can do.
If you want to spend less, or go lighter, simply sit at the sushi counter and tell the chef you’d like a selection of sushi and sashimi within a certain price range. You might end up with a whisper-thin sashimi of flounder glossed with olive oil and a fascinating crunch of candied quinoa grains from the regular menu; or a revelatory piece of barracuda sushi from the specials list, its skin torched to impart a subtle smokiness that really suits the meaty fish, everything lifted with a touch of sweet vinegar soy.
One night, Ali, a Malaysian sushi chef who’s spent time in Venezuela, came up with what he called, with a conspiratorial gleam in his eye and a trace of self-deprecation, “a study in yellowtail.” Yellowtail is so common, he told me, but taste the illuminating difference: the loin, dabbed with soy and ginger, had that familiar, almost fruity yellowtail flavor. The belly piece was so fatty as to be opulent, pricked with a dab of garlicky yuzu remoulade for contrast. And the cheek — the throat so highly prized by fish connoisseurs — was poached in olive oil and tasted peppery against its bed of sweet sushi rice, the soft cooked fish texture a small shock in context.
About that sweet sushi rice: it’s the house style at the various Uchis, I suspect because they use more Mirin, or rice wine, than many places do. And I’ve made my peace with it, although in general I prefer a more refreshing vinegar tinge. Thing is, Uchi puts so much thought into the little twists of acid and salt, sauce and condiment that the sweet rice becomes just another element in the overall sushi balancing act. It all works.
So I have come to believe, anyway. The Japanese businessmen and tourists who visit the various Uchis tend to disagree, I was told by a manager visiting from Austin. (The coming and going of brass between the cities is one of the things that keeps the quality high.) These Japanese visitors apparently think the sushi here isn’t pure enough; they’re not buying into the condiment action, however discreetly and impeccably applied.
It’s not Japanese, they claim. Just so. Uchi’s cuisine is a brilliant riff, Japanese in its spirit of discipline and precision — even in its intense seasonality on the specials menus — but utterly American in its spirit of rigorous, joyful improvisation.
I hate to gloat, but we’re lucky to have this splendid restaurant in town.
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.