It’s not Mexican or barbeque (we do have a bit of other food down here), and it’s not casual. It’s also not so secret anymore. Uchi is one of those fine-dining places, fancy pants restaurants that you see sleek ads for in all the local trendy magazines. And genius chef Tyson Cole was recently on Iron Chef America! That definitely deserves an exclamation mark. So yes, there’s a lot of hype for Uchi. Sometimes this can throw me off, like before going to a movie that ‘everybody just loves’ and there’s so much build up and then it might not deliver. I think Uchi delivered because there’s nowhere else in town where you can get food like that. Like I said, we’ve got our fair share of Mexican and barbeque and Southern, at all different price ranges, but this sort of Japanese Austin doesn’t have much of (well, besides Uchi). And the décor isn’t bad either. It’s got deep, dark red walls, a nice little stone garden and fountain and wooden screens to block the street while you wait with a drink for a table, which will most surely happen because it was packed at 7 o’clock on a Tuesday night. This bothered my parents. Throughout the whole meal they complained that they couldn’t hear a thing and it was too loud, and they had pictured and expected some serene, quiet setting. I guess for the youths, the noise factor isn’t as big an issue, although it was hard at points to hear.
But when they present you with the menu, you just don’t know where to start. There are cold and hot appetizers, nightly specials, and then a regular menu with soups, sushi, sashimi, tempura, etc. Our waiter made it easy for us: told us to do the tasting menu which is mainly pulled from the specials, and if you want you can add things to it. We did, because he said it was for two people, but could easily feed more. By adding a few dishes, it fed four of us. This was best because I was eyeing a few things on the specials and I think we got a total of ten dishes, and then also added a few other things that we couldn’t live without.
Before I start in on the food, it must be mentioned that there’s no liquor, just beer and wine. Having not been in the States during my formative wine-drinking years, I know nothing about American wines. It was a relief to see Spanish wines on there, and more importantly, a Spanish wine I knew and liked. It was a red from a region called Bierzo and listed as $35, which I think is a steal compared to most other bottles listed. Spain’s got that over the US definitely, you can go to a nice restaurant and get a great bottle of wine barely marked up, for something as low as 12 euros. Anyways, we go the Bierzo and had about a third of the bottle left and the waiter came over and said, “Now, if yall get a second bottle I’ll make you a deal and give you each of them for 20.” Obviously yes, we were already careening towards our second bottle anyways. So we liked him, and we liked our wine. And this has never happened to us before, and I don’t know if it’s standard there or what, but I’d be willing to go back and find out. So we’ve got our wine, let’s move onto the food: we started off with an amuse in a little shot glass. It was a puree of Santa Claus melon (never heard of it in my life, but no surprise it’s on wikipedia) with ginger oil. I didn’t feel either way about this, it was just a quick shot and I don’t love melon, but it was fine. I was ready for the real stuff though. Next came something from the cold appetizer: sea bass, grapeseed oil, garlic, and black pepper in a citrus vinaigrette. This was very light and fresh, almost too light. The fish was so tender, but I could have used just a pinch more salt or a little more bite to the citrus vinaigrette, although it’s definitely better to be on the light side than the overbearing, too fishy. And there was a crispy fried chunk of fish skin and fin. That was a nice contrast, just a slight crunch to the velvety fish. Next was something from the specials, that I was actually thinking of getting. I’m much happier that I got just a taste from lots of plates because there were other dishes that I ended up liking much better. This was Omaaru Ebi: maine lobster, hami melon gazpacho, cilantro puree, and thai chili oil. The lobster was great; just how lobster should be cooked. But the other components I wasn’t too impressed with. It must have been the melon gazpacho and the fact that it said thai chili oil but it definitely needed to be spicier for more dimension. Fourth was dish that ranks up there with my favorites. I would go back and get this and be satisfied. Suzuki Viche (makes you wonder what Suzuki means): striped bass, garlic, lemon-thyme vinaigrette, spring onion, and okra. This fish was amazing. That perfect balance of pure fresh fish with a flavor of salt, and it just melted in your mouth. I was also really impressed with the okra; I’m used to fried okra which I don’t love. I think this was my first time to have fresh okra and I liked it. Everything was working in this dish. The next dish was also a winner. Hotate Uikyou: seared diver scallops, fennel, lobster mushroom, orange, and cauliflower. I’ve had a newfound appreciation for scallops ever since my first meal at Cinc Sentits, and these kept up their end of the deal. Soft on the inside, crispy browned on the outside. Wish there had been more. The cauliflower and mushrooms were also great, both browned and tasty, but the standout was of course the scallops. I think my mother voted this her favorite. Following the scallops we had a dish off the tasting menu that my sister picked. Bacon Steakie: twice-cooked kurobuta pork belly with green apples. Totally amazing. Mouth-watering. Words like these come to mind. You have to get over the fact that there’s fat interspersed with all the meat because that’s what makes it like butter. But it’s crispy and blackened on the outside, so you get a crunch and then almost liquid as the flavorful pork spills over your tongue. My mom said it reminded her of spare ribs that her dad used to cook, a great nostalgic flavor. These were so rich too, if you’re not into skimpy pieces of fish, these will fill in nicely. And I appreciate the mixture of fish and meat during the meal. So what dish are we on? Seven? Hamachi Cure: Maplewood-smoked baby yellowtail, yucca, asian pear, and garlic brittle. This was good when you ate a bit of everything together, in one bite. The fish was soft and light, I think to showcase it’s freshness, even though it still preferred the stronger striped bass. But it all pulled together nicely by taking a crunchy yucca chip, some fish, a bit of garlic, and some of the greens and eating it all together. Next was another a la carte item that I picked. I just wanted some regular sushi rolls, to kind of give me a basis to compare to. You know, if you’re evaluating goodness, you need level playing ground, like trying vanilla ice cream instead of going for chocolate chocolate chip or whatever. We just got tuna and avocado rolls, and they were superior. It’s been a while since I’ve had sushi in Austin, but like I said before, there aren’t too many places where you could get sushi and meat and fish of this quality. I really liked their maki rolls and wish I had had a plate of different types to try more. The ninth dish was another one of my favorites. Gin Dara Miso: pan roasted black cod, miso, white eggplant, shishito, garlic, kumquat. After living in Spain, you get pretty familiar with cod, namely salt cod, and sometimes you don’t come to expect much of it. But this was a completely different experience, a different fish. It was falling apart because it was so tender and well-cooked with the pan roasted sides lending lots of flavor. It was hard for me to focus on all the ingredients in these dishes, especially when the main item would steal the spotlight, but I remember someone saying the white eggplant was ‘buttery.’ The next dish that came out was the dark horse. Never in my life did I think I’d eat eel (except that time in San Sebastian when I thought they were noodles, but that’s a different story). This was nigiri of grilled fresh-water eel with ginger. Simple and delicious. I’ve stopped turning down most food now, especially if it’s on the tasting menu and the chef thinks I should eat it. I was surprised at how moist it was and kind of meaty, not really like a fish texture. This went down real easy. Alright, we got two dishes left on the tasting menu (not including dessert), so stay with me. Wagyu Midori: oak-grilled wagyu short rib, green tomatoes, celery, tarragon, parsley, lemongrass, and green peppercorn. Strange that I had just had Kobe beef for the first time a couple weeks before this. Didn’t taste any different to me. So now I got to try the wagyu. This was noticeably different from other beef. They gave us 5 pieces, so each person took one and I just popped the whole thing in my mouth. It was marbled with lots of fat, and it wasn’t like chewing on a piece of fat at all, but you knew it was there. There was lots of chewing involved. With the fifth piece, we cut it into little squares and divided it, and it was a lot better just by getting a bite-size piece. I still prefer regular beef because it was a texture I’m not used to, a little too much fat mixed in there (don’t ask me why the pork belly works and this doesn’t, it just does). But on this plate, I concentrated on all the other aspects: the green tomatoes were really great. Once again, I’m used to fried green tomatoes, so I was happy to taste their tartness coming out. And what really blew my mind was the ‘celery.’ It looked like cooked green onions but tasted exactly like celery, it was the weirdest thing ever, but fun. Finally we got Foie Ume: seared Hudson Valley foie gras, green plums, watermelon radish, lemongrass, black pepper, and concord grape jelly (not Smuckers). This was truly a beautiful dish. All the colors and the image of watermelon on the radish half moons was amazing to look at. I’ve been eating foie now for a few years, but I still like to take it in doses, and usually with toast or bread if I can, to cut the fat. There was no bread to be had. Once again though, if you ate a bit of everything together, a sliver of foie on a faux watermelon, a little sweet jelly, and most crucially, a basil leaf, it molded into perfect pairings inside your mouth. From this I learned that foie and basil could be real friends, I’ve never noticed them coupled together before, but I think more people should experiment with it because I loved it. So ended our savory meal, but we still had the dessert to come. They have a separate pastry chef, Mr. Cole does not do that himself. And on the dessert menu there were other things that caught my eye more than what we were served, but I’ll have to save that for next time I go back for a few particular dishes and my Spanish wine. I don’t have a copy of the dessert menu so I’m jogging my memory by looking at the picture and hopefully won’t get it to wrong. Here’s what I’m proposing: beet tatin, lemon gelato, Sicilian pistachios, and some sort of tuille. I mention that first because I have no problem remembering that. It was slightly over-salted. And when I say slightly, I mean really. I forgive them, because it can be broken into tiny shards and top off the tatin or ice cream and be that missing link. But if you get a big bite out of it, watch out. The beet tatin was ok, not great. I liked the gelato and crumbled pistachios best, although I’m more of a heavy, creamy, rich ice cream kinda girl (think chocolate, caramel, hazelnut) and not so much a fruit ice cream, but it sufficed, and I wasn’t exactly starving. The colors on the plate were deep and bright, and the dessert was no doubt thought out, but I’d like to see what the other ones taste like (I seem to remember a peanut butter parfait).