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Dining Out

Uchi (Austin, Texas)

by Michael Chu
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On a recent visit to Austin, Texas, I made sure I had a chance to dine at Uchi, the highly respected Japanese inspired restaurant helmed by executive chef Tyson Cole. I expected some good sushi, flavorful beef and pork, and some beautiful presentations. What I got was beyond my expectations. To date, my three-and-a-half-hour dinner at Uchi is the best meal I've ever had.

Usually, when I go to a high-end Japanese restaurant, I get pulled in a variety of directions while deciding what to order. Of course, Japanese cuisine is most famously known for their raw fish delicacies - sashimi and sushi. Besides the fresh fish, they are also famous for beef - Kobe, Yonezawa, and Matsusaka beef - and pork - Kurobuta. In each of these cases, the food is generally prepared simply and elegantly with much of the emphasis on the quality of the ingredients. So what should I order? Well, it depends on what ingredients the restaurant happens to be carrying.

On the evening that we visited Uchi, the daily specials menu was quite varied ranging from rabbit to whole grilled sea bass to Wagyu ribeye. Wagyu is the breed of cattle that is most famously employed in Kobe beef, but not all Wagyu beef (and not all Kobe beef) is up to the quality level of the beef of legend that seems to be all the rage these days. (The best beef I've ever had is still the Yonezawa beef I had in Yonezawa, Japan.)

A regular item on the menu that caught my eye was the kurobuta pork belly. Tina and I routinely lament the mild flavor of pork. Here, in the United States, hogs have been bred to be extremely lean (to the point where the pork industry marketed their pork products as "the other white meat"). This was good for business since many Americans know that they aren't living healthy lives and try to compensate by eating foods that they believe are healthy - like lean pork. Unfortunately, this came at a cost - the reduced fat meant reduced flavor. (Sometimes, I can't tell the difference between stir fry dishes using chicken breast and those using pork loin - they just taste like chewy protein. I think that's pretty sad since pork has a very nice natural flavor.) Enter the Japanese and their Kurobuta pork. Kurobuta (which means "black hog") pork comes from a variety of hog known as the Berkshire. Since the Berkshire breed has been preserved in Japan (and other nations), it's one of the few ways to get pork in the U.S. that is still full flavored and marbled with fat. Tina and I find the taste difference between regular pork and Kurobuta/Berkshire pork to be so great that we almost always order Kurobuta pork when we see it on the menu.

To top it off, we learned that the fish served at Uchi is flown in from the Tsukiji fish market (the worlds largest daily fish market where the freshest and highest quality fish are auctioned every morning). So what do we do when we need to try everything? Omakase - we let the chef and our server, Erin, arrange a meal for us. The term omakase literally means to "entrust" and that's very much what we did. Since we had never dined at Uchi before, I didn't leave it completely up to chance - I explained to Erin my personal weakness for otoro (the highest quality cut from the belly of a bluefin tuna - when the fish is good and properly cut, it has a buttery consistency and feels like it melts in your mouth) and our interest in the Kurobuta pork. Erin asked us if we had any food restrictions or food allergies, and I reassured her that had we had any allergies, we'd still eat the food and suffer the consequences.

Armed with that information, Erin put together our amazing meal and we started to dine.

amuse bouche
We started with an amuse served in a tiny cup containing a Winterpoint oyster with yuzu san bai zu (sweet vinegar sauce) and minced daikon & ginger. The oyster was super fresh - yielding a sweet and not at all fishy taste. The mild ginger and sweet citrus vinegar made this a perfectly balanced amuse bouche and really got us excited about the possibilities of the upcoming dishes.

hirame usuzukuri
thinly-sliced flounder, spanish olive oil, smoked sea salt, yuzu zest, daikon, crispy quinoa ($18)
The raw flounder was extremely fresh resulting in an light, delicate flavor, almost as if it was intended as a vehicle for the other ingredients (which included microbasil and microfennel). Eating all the ingredients together in the same bite was a delight when the flavors intermingled. But, when I focused, I could taste the herbaceousness of the olive oil, the mild spice of the daikon and microgreens, and the citrus of the yuzu. Keep in mind that all of these flavors were subtle, so the flavors of the dish were perfectly matched with the flounder.

tombo nasu
hawaiian albacore, thai eggplant, lemongrass vinaigrette, breakfast radish, sweet chili gastrique, cucumber ($19)
This was the best course we had in this amazing dinner. It's Hawaiian albacore tuna topped with chili and lemongrass sauce served with shaved radish and crunchy thai eggplant slivers on top of a bed of sweet cucumber gelatin. The flavors and textures were working overtime on this one. Sweetness: sweet chili sauce with the natural mild sweetness of fresh tuna, highlighted by the slight citrus-acidity of the lemongrass, and the refreshing sweetness of the cucumber gelatin. Spiciness: chili sauce, radish, and fresh eggplant. Texture: crunchy eggplant slivers and radish shavings, meaty tuna, and melt-in-the-mouth gelatin. The most amazing part is that all of these different traits worked perfectly together resulting in a warming and refreshing feel as you eat it. Unfortunately, this dish does not seem to be a regular item (it's part of their nightly specials), but if you see it, make sure you order it.

maguro sashimi and goat cheese
with cracked pepper, fuji apple, and pumpkin seed oil ($17)
This was another course that we thought was extremely impressive. Luckily, it is on the permanent menu, I'd recommend ordering this dish on your visit. We ate this dish by layering the bigeye tuna with goat cheese onto a slice of fuji apple and eating the bite-sized stack whole. The combination of flavors (sweet and acidic apple, bitter and astringent microgreens, creamy and earthy Texas goat cheese, and spicy and biting black pepper) activated all the taste buds simultaneously. Like the previous dish, this was simply amazing and was definitely a new taste experience.

bacon steakie
twice-cooked kurobuta pork belly with green apple ($12)
The pork belly, braised then grilled, was served with an extremely flavorful sweet Indonesian soy sauce with a salad of green apple, onions, and parsley with a citrus oil. The pork was succulent and crispy, and overall the dish was very good. Excellent taste and texture, but not as amazing or world changing as the last two dishes.

super toro bluefin belly ($18) and sake fresh atlantic salmon ($6) nigiri
Nigiri is probably the prime example of how simple Japanese cuisine can be and yet how amazingly flavorful, satisfying, and elegant it is when properly done. There are only really three ingredients so they must be of highest quality and properly portioned (especially if the wasabi is served as part of the nigiri and not made into a self applied paste with soy sauce as is the Western custom). Both the sake (salmon) and otoro (bluefin tuna belly) were extremely fresh, having no fishy taste whatsoever. They were naturally savory with a delicate sweetness and a buttery texture. The rice was warm with distinct grains (with a little bit of chew - almost like it was al dente pasta), and seasoned lightly with the most delicious vinegar. There is no doubt that the sushi at Uchi is top notch. Plus, it's always a pleasure eating otoro.

mame aji
grilled baby blue mackerels, hearts of palm, tomato relish, sherry vinegar ($16)
The baby mackerels, which had crispy skin and tender flesh, were heavily salted, but, after the initial burst of saltiness, chewing on the flesh with the hearts of palm mellowed out the flavor. This dish had a very intense and assertive taste which contrasted with the earlier fish courses. Very tasty.

hamachi cure
sugar-cured maplewood-smoked baby yellowtail, yucca crisps, asian pear, garlic brittle ($18)
The hamachi or Japanese amberjack was sweet with a mild smokiness and this paired well with the other sweet to mildly sweet ingredients - gold currants, candied garlic, asian pears, marcona almonds, and yucca chips. We placed each of the ingredients on a yucca chip and ate it like that allowing the yucca to provide crunchiness while enjoying the various sweet ingredients.

mero sake
caramelized mero bass, sake lees, shiitake terrine, arugula mâche ($22)
The Hawaiian Mero bass "caramelized with miso" was tender and flavorful - meaty but in a falling apart and juicy way. The terrine, made with shiitake mushrooms, napa cabbage, and gelatin, was strongly flavored and along with the vinaigrette of sake lees served as a perfect counterpoint to the bass.

wagyu tamago
cherry-wood smoked wagyu ribeye, quince jam, fried egg purée, bottarga, grilled fennel ($34)
The ribeye steak was served rare topped with fennel and fennel greens. A sweet, tart quince jam was paired with the steak along with some ramps and a sauce made of pureed fried egg. The flavor of the ribeye was subtle with the faint cherry wood smoke being the dominant tone. Although there was some gristle in the beef, on the whole it was exquisite. I commented that this course was the perfect "bookend" to the meal which began with raw fish and, now, had a finale of nearly raw beef - both subtle in flavors, similar in texture, and elegantly prepared.

raisei foie
seared foie gras terrine, rhubarb pavé, fava bean, pink peppercorn ($20)
I thought the Wagyu beef course was going to be our last before dessert, but Erin asked if we'd like to have a coarse of foie gras before our dessert and while I was deciding on if I had enough space left, Tina answered for me (working on the assumption and experience that I never turn down foie gras). So, a foie course appeared and I realized that I had reached the point where I was pretty much out of words and could not describe anything anymore. The cold foie gras terrine was excellent, but, unlike the other complex dishes we had earlier, I didn't care for eating it simultaneously with it's accompaniments - the rhubarb and rhubarb gelatin. The gelatin was sweet and fruity while the rhubarb itself was fairly tart. I found that alternating between the foie and the rubarb was good, and I suspect it refreshed the palate between bites of the foie gras... Unfortunately, my ability to provide feedback on food seemed to be limited at this point in the meal.

dark chocolate terrine, meyer lemon gelato, pecan nougatine, coffee caramel ($9)
The terrine (made with Valrhona chocolate) had a velvety texture that worked perfectly with the nougatine (a brown nougat made with pecans). The gelato was also velvety in texture but was refreshingly lemony but not acidic. A great end to an excellent meal.

The reason why I consider this meal to be the best I've ever had is that, with this many courses, it was exceptional to have them all rate in the good to excellent range (with a couple so exceptional that they truly introduced us to new flavor and texture combinations). In the past, we've had excellent multi-course meals but there have always been at least one or two courses that could have used improvement. At Uchi's this was not the case; the execution was pretty much flawless.

Not only was the food excellent, our server, Erin McReynolds, was the best captain we’ve ever had at any restaurant. Besides being friendly and personable, she really knew her food, was articulate and patient when I needed ingredients or explanations repeated, and was genuinely excited that Tina and I were excited about our food. I don't know if all the staff is at the level of Erin (and I suspect they are not), but we were blessed and lucky to have her waiting on us and it certainly helped make the incredible 3-1/2 hour dinner even better.

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Written by Michael Chu
Published on April 26, 2008 at 12:30 AM
14 comments on Uchi (Austin, Texas):(Post a comment)

On May 20, 2008 at 10:40 AM, bookishatx (guest) said...
Subject: libations?
I don't know if you did so since it wasn't mentioned in your piece, but did you have the sommelier create pairings for your meal. I've had the omakase once (not nearly enough), and the pairings were exquisite. Do try on your next visit if you haven't already.

On May 20, 2008 at 09:28 PM, Michael Chu said...
Subject: Re: libations?
bookishatx wrote:
I don't know if you did so since it wasn't mentioned in your piece, but did you have the sommelier create pairings for your meal. I've had the omakase once (not nearly enough), and the pairings were exquisite. Do try on your next visit if you haven't already.
Tina and I can't drink too much wine. Maybe at most a glass between the two of us. We opted for green tea with our meal.

On May 27, 2008 at 08:32 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Subject: price?
What did the omakase cost?

On May 27, 2008 at 11:09 PM, Michael Chu said...
Subject: Re: price?
Anonymous wrote:
What did the omakase cost?

The price of every dish is listed.

On June 14, 2008 at 06:27 PM, an anonymous reader said...
Am I correct in assuming the portions pictured are the complete courses? If not, how much of each item were you served?

This is of great interest to me because here in Houston I have a favorite cheap Japanese buffet that has, with rare exception, won out over the other medium-to-cheap-priced sushi joints I've tried. Those non-buffet restaurants, well-reviewed in the local rags, tend to feature poor ingredients and rolls where each individual piece (slice of the roll) is priced in dollars, not cents!

On June 15, 2008 at 01:13 AM, Michael Chu said...
Anonymous wrote:
Am I correct in assuming the portions pictured are the complete courses? If not, how much of each item were you served?

Yes, the amount shown in each picture is the complete course. The price next to each is for what is shown in each picture. (Good question, by the way. Unfortunately, what is also needed is a little ruler in the picture too...)

On June 28, 2008 at 11:22 PM, Kaerondaes (guest) said...
Subject: ...Japanese food outside of Japan...
My husband and I currently live in Japan, on the coast in Hokkaido. I'm now quite spoiled, because our town has an inexpensive kaitenzushi (rotating sushi bar) that has fresh fish...often caught less than a quarter of a mile away! At home we eat grilled shake (Pacific Salmon) frequently, it's a local catch, and it's wonderful. It doesn't need any spices; it's naturally salty and extremely tasty.

I've never been a big fan of toro, but I'm used to paying basically a buck for a little plate of two pieces of fresh salmon nigiri, my favorite, although I also love shrimp nigiri. So it was inspiring to see a Japanese restaurant in the U.S. -- where we used to live, in Austin -- that had a rave review. Perhaps that means when we move back to the U.S. we will be able to find decent Japanese-style food.

I collect Japanese and Chinese recipes like mad (we used to live in China) because I know one of these days it's going to be hard to get this stuff. Thanks for a little inspiration.

On June 29, 2008 at 03:30 AM, hsh (guest) said...
Anonymous - Can you tell me the name of the Japanese buffet in Houston?

On July 27, 2008 at 03:36 PM, thatguy (guest) said...
Uchi is great if you like tiny, gimmicky and expensive food. A friend treated me to dinner there once. The bill with tip came to around $200. I thanked him for the snack and asked him where we were going for dinner. The waiter was an arrogant jerk. It seems to me that eating at Uchi is more about flaunting one's socioeconomic status than anything else. The food was fine, but I can get a better value on an excellent Japanese dinner elsewhere, and I don't have to worry about how I look or with whom I'm seen.

On July 27, 2008 at 04:24 PM, Dilbert said...
thatguy -

well, good sushi is not a cheap meal.
I figure $5 per forkful - in a decent place.

gimmicky? that's everywhere.
once was a guest in a Swedish establishment - middle of the place was a huge "pond" with radio controlled boats; each table got a radio controller to steer their boat to their table.

the "orders" were - obviously - delivered by boat. when the table occupants were so drunk they could no longer steer the boat to their table, game over .....

On August 22, 2008 at 07:58 PM, an anonymous reader said...
I live in Austin and had heard about Uchi, so I was interested in your review.

Thanks for saving me from a very expensive and unsatisfying experience.

I'd just as soon eat from a bait bucket as eat sushi, and at the staggering prices listed, your meal had to cost more than a car payment.

Looks like Uchi is just for posers looking to impress others with their ability to pay so much for so little. Thanks for the review, but I wouldn't eat that meal if you paid me...

On December 03, 2008 at 01:26 AM, jon (guest) said...
I've been to Uchi once, and after paying over $20 for a small dish of edamame, one of the cheapest rolls on the menu (yellowtail?), and some tea, decided that I'd never return.

On February 26, 2009 at 01:55 PM, Darius (guest) said...
Subject: Worth every penny
I have recently been to Uchi and had the Omakase and I think it can be agreed by all that of course the meal is expensive. However if you truly love food and want to experience flavors and combinations like never before, the price is well worth it. Even still some people don't want new flavors no matter how intelligently composed and delicious this will never be worth the cost. While telling my fiancee at the restaurant how amazing each dish was we saw a couple send back the exact same dishes we were falling in love with. I'm a college student working full time and realize the value of a well priced meal. Spending $200 on one meal is a luxury that I can't afford often but it is no different than other expensive hobbies. I've been to golf stores before and you could take 10 people out to eat for what some people spend on clubs. I see peers proud to sport the new fashionable purses or cell phones, which they proudly got for a steal of $200. Now I'm not trying to say that expensive food is just trendy, it is just a reasonable expense for some who consider food a passionate hobbie and part of life. Previously my best favorite restaurant meal was Alinea in Chicago (pretty trendy now I suppose, and also pricier) but during my meal at Uchi and now after it has taken that position. Just as the original article stated it was hard maintain a clear head because the food was so outstanding. Only one dish from his meal was in common with ours, and we still considered them all to be great, and some exquisite (can chile's or olive garden ever do the same?).

I understand it can be upsetting if you go to a restaurant and expect to spend less than $30 and leave unsattisfied because of portion size. If the quality is this good then expect to order more food. The omakase tasting was completely filling for the two of us. If you are looking to eat sushi or traditional japanese fair then yes try something else if you think this is too expensive. But if you want to try something new that will introduce not only new flavors but combine others in creative ways then try Uchi. Even if you have to save for it (as we did).

On September 15, 2013 at 09:30 AM, ladyjanegray (guest) said...
Subject: best
I've eaten Cross the world, and had some amazing meals. My boss took me to Uchi, and the experience was excellent. We asked if we could just order our way through the menu -- meaning our waiter would have to come repeatedly to our table over two hours.

As with others, I'd always thought this kind of food preparation was pretentious. First taste of first dish changed my mind: the food was delicious, and I finally understood.

This kind of cooking is not for everyone, but enjoying it doesn't make you stupid, a poseur, or evil. All it meNs is thhat you like and can afford this kind of quality.

And yes, from across the world, this is the best meal I've ever had. It didn't hurt that my boss was paying ...

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