Uchi: Worth The Wait

by Sarah on March 26, 2011 · 5 comments

Ever since I moved to Austin last summer, I’ve heard nothing but Uchi, Uchi, Uchi* in most foodie conversations. [Occasionally with its younger sibling, Uchiko, thrown in for extra fun.]

Have you been to Uchi, yet? How about Uchiko? Oh my goll,^ you have to go! I kept waiting for people to break out pompoms and do a full on cheer routine complete with pyramid and throws:

Uchi this, Uchi that
You’re a foodie
Go to Uchi!

*Let’s all get our baby voiced ‘coochi coochi coo‘s out of the way right now. Ready? Go!
^OK, no one actually says oh my goll except for me. But you get the idea.
Well, y’all, I’ve finally been to the much heralded bastion of Japanese cuisine.And yes, I have to say that it is undoubtedly worth the wait. [And you will have to wait. For your table, that is. I would say at least 45 minutes most nights of the week.]

It’s not hard to get really excited while you are waiting for your table. Considering that Tyson Cole, Austin’s biggest chef-lebrity by far (and just this week receiving his fourth James Beard Nomination for Best Chef: Southwest) is the executive chef and founder…and his (and the restaurants) awards line the wall…

Make that wallS. [Three of them.]

(Yes, that is a Food & Wine Best New Chef 2005 award.)
There’s an underlying energy that overcomes you as soon as you enter the bustling restaurant, from the action-packed sushi bar…
–from which it is not uncommon to hear one of the chefs yelling orders as he works–…to the adjacent wine and sake bar, where the bartender is more than happy to help you pick out a sake to your liking.

I wasn’t sure whether I was hoping a spot at the bar or a table would open up first, but table it was! The small tables-for-two feature uber-cushioned seats that feel sort of like a structured couch and you immediately relax, sink in, and ready yourself for a delicious meal.We were first brought towels to clean our hands prior to eating, and then a palate-cleansing bite of grapefruit sorbet with shiso leaf. Slightly minty in flavor, the crisp shiso rounded out the tartness of the sorbet, and I swear there was a hint of salt rounding out the spoonful. [This was the first of many dishes where the flavor profile changed over the course of seconds.]For starters, I couldn’t resist ordering the seaweed salad. What an excellent decision that turned out to be. This sunomono featured a variety of seaweed, thinly sliced Japanese cucumber, and radish sprouts, but the biggest surprise was the amount of intense flavor the ponzu dressing brought to round out the dish. [I was even hesitant to let them clear the dish away because I wanted to be able to dip anything I could into it later. :)]Of course, there was also miso soup (with mushrooms).This disappeared so fast I’m not even sure I remembered enough of how it tasted (other than INCREDIBLE) to tell you about it. Let’s just say I could have ended the meal right there and been perfectly satisfied.

Good thing I didn’t, because I was in store for even MORE. First up? Uchiviche.
You say ceviche (or any variation of the word you like), and I say gimme, so it is no surprise it called to me from the menu. This was an incredible preparation of salmon and striped bass with bell peppers, tomatoes, and raisins (!) with cilantro and crispy garlic.
The sweetness of the raisins were a shockingly tasty counterpart to the savory tuna, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to try a tuna-and-raisin salad one of these days because of it. The cilantro and citrus dressing made every bite taste light and bright* and as you kept tasting there would be the late arrival of garlic rounding everything out. There was a surprising amount of heat left on your lips, very peppery in a great way.
*So many accidental rhymes…
The second tasting was a house favorite: hama chili.
Despite its name, it wasn’t as spicy as the uchiviche, but its heat came from the Thai chiles sprinkled on top and hit your palate in a totally different place (heat as opposed to pepper in the first dish).This yellowtail sashimi had the amazing ponzu sauce underneath, along with some sweet oranges. Once again, every taste was accounted for: sweet, sour, salty, savory…the sprouts might even be called bitter if you wanted to really reach for a full profile.
Just when we thought we could never eat anything better, along came the wagyu naganegi.
wagyu short ribs with yellow pepper gastrique and yellow pepper relish, along with a sauce (the green) of smoked tokyo negi
Onion “glass” made of dehydrated onion skin, and crispy scallion ends turned something we’d normally throw away into a surprisingly fun and tasty accent. [They were probably supposed to only be garnish, but I ate them anyway. I am now officially a fan of crispy scallion ‘rumps.’*]
*There. I said it.
This was probably the best beef I’ve ever eaten in my life. (I kept saying, “I wish Papa Smart could be hear to eat this simultaneously. I want him to taste this!” as he is the steak-maker of my family.) So perfectly tender inside with a thin crispy edge, it was a textural treat with every morsel. The yellow pepper relish added a sweetness to the meat, but by far my favorite thing on that plate was the smoky tokyo negi sauce. I was literally scraping my chopstick along the plate trying to scoop up every bit I could.
There were moments of complete silence during which eyes were closed in order to pay more attention to each flavorful bite of heavenly meat.

I was full then. I really didn’t need any more. But there was one more dish* on the menu that I couldn’t help but order: maguro sashimi with goat cheese, fuji apples, cracked black pepper, and pumpkinseed oil.
*Totally a lie. I wanted everything. And I mean everything.
Crisp apples, creamy goat cheese, spicy black pepper, savory tuna, and the slightly sweet pumpkinseed oil all made for a delicious bite initially…
…but then our waiter (Brian, who was amazing—give him a raise!) suggested eating the tuna and goat cheese first, and then “chasing it” with an apple.*
*”Chase it with the apple” was, in fact, the alternative title of this blog post.
And that…oh now THAT was the way to eat this dish. I never in my life would have thought to pair tuna and goat cheese, but y’all. Seriously. Get on that.
From the moment I initially looked at the menu online (and this happened about 6 times on the day I went—and at least 12 times before), there was one item I knew I would have failed y’all if I hadn’t order: peanut butter semifreddo with apple-miso sorbet.
I mean, if the nut butter queen doesn’t order the peanut butter dessert she’s probably failed someone, somewhere, right?
For those of you confused by the sheer amount happening on the plate, the semifreddo (a semi-frozen custard…and therefore, my perfect dessert) is the block underneath, and the apple-miso sorbet is the egg-shaped Humpty Dumpty (please don’t fall) on top.
There was peanut flour and crumbled peanut brittle scattered underneath, and a ringo crisp (‘ringo’ is apple in Japanese) that had a citrusy flavor to it—lime, I believe. The golden raisins paired with the peanut butter took me back to the days of “ants on a log” in the most amazing and wonderful way.

The lovely people of Uchi surprised us with a complimentary house dessert special, listed on the daily specials as okashi.

basil semifreddo with olive oil ice cream, roasted tomato granite, pine nuts,
and nutty wafer cookies

(that last part was of my own description…I don’t know what those cookies were, but they were delicious)

I’ll break it down again for you, as there is so much to see. The marshmallow-like (or mini-brie wheels) are the basil semifreddo, while the ‘egg’ is the olive oil ice cream. I think you can figure out what the cookie and the pine nuts are. :)
At first, I was hesitant. Tomato-basil-olive oil dessert? That’s one slice of mozzarella away from a caprese. But then, oh but THEN, the olive oil ice cream melts down over everything and the natural sweetness of the tomato and pine nuts blend together into this deliciously complex sweet-and-savory scoop of “I can’t stop eating this” amazingness. I literally could not stop eating. I almost didn’t even go back to the peanut butter after I started in on this…and y’all know that’s saying something! [Almost. No dessert is EVER safe from me. Not when there is frozen custard, or semi-frozen custard, involved. Cookies, I can resist. This? I could most definitely not.]
It’s hard for me even to look at these pictures because I just don’t know how I will ever be able to top this meal.

Well, I guess there’s always Uchiko.
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Cati @ crave and create March 26, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Everything looks just wonderful! Oh, I wish I could have been there. I would have eaten until I burst, I think. :-)

marie March 26, 2011 at 6:55 pm

That dessert looks awesome! Not a huge fan of Japanese food but it all looks yummy. Surprised at the inclusion of goat cheese. Don't normally see that with Japanese food.

Missy March 26, 2011 at 7:38 pm

To quote Liz Lemon (30 Rock):
"I want to go there."

Gorgeous pictures by the way!

PS- Your Dad is too cute.

Leila @ Spinach and Skittles March 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm

Omigosh, I can't decide which dish to comment about, they all look so delicious! I want to book a last minute flight to Austin right now!

Tricia @ Saving room for dessert March 27, 2011 at 9:39 am

I'm glad I'm not the only one that looks up menus, numerous times online before actually going to a restaurant. The steak would probably speak to me. Great restaurant photos too!~ That's always hard to do but you done good Ms. Smart :) Hope all is well in Texas. It snowed here in Virginia last night. The last winter hoorahh I guess. Must be dogwood winter, cherry blossom winter or some such thing!

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