On a hot summer night, as the valet does his waltz, Uchi’s façade glows, a giant red fish with glimmering scales. The mirage fits what your mind outlines behind, downtown’s skyline, also aglow. This is our Uchi, the newest addition to much-lauded sushi master Tyson Cole’s empire. We play Hokkaido to Austin’s Honshu, the island to our south.
[inline_image id=”2″ align=”r” crop=”tall”]Weeks after its opening, hype still made reservations a hopscotch (5 pm or 9?). While I waited under the gaze of a ceramic lucky cat, I was offered complimentary sushi, wrapped not in nori, but in pale soy paper speckled with black sesame. The bright pop from a dollop of house-made yuzu kosho paste was the perfect wild link between avocado and sun-dried tomato.
Cole’s cuisine reflects reverence for the Japanese aesthetic, marrying its technical exactitude with a distinctive vision—sensuous, intuitive, playful, and superlatively smart. I’m reminded of the European Impressionists who discovered Japanese prints, their artistic responses seizing the new structural possibilities with subjects and brushwork all their own.
Inside the sleek, modern dining room, cream-colored walls describe subtle waves, and warm-toned woods dominate—pecan, walnut. Branching lamps look like dendrites, ready to send nerve impulses. Plates vibrate with color. Fish and foliage entrance like cut gems. Batons of yellow tomato in bright formation. Tuna glowing like dusky rubies over compressed watermelon’s juicier red. A vibrant green smear, like a paint stroke under succulent pork belly. Every sideways glance makes me burn with plate-envy.
Cole remembers his first sushi experience, in a restaurant called Nippon in Houston. He ate raw flounder with ponzu, a citrusy sauce. “I was just taken aback by how unique it was, and the texture. So refined, so light and refreshing,” he says. “I fell in love with the culture. The people. The respect.”
At the sushi bar, chefs in headbands fan sliced sashimi over shaved ice and sear thin-cut Wagyu and mushrooms on the hibachi. Fish is flown in daily from Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, and the quality—not just of the Tsukiji specials—is stunning. As such, each flight of sushi is a lesson in nuances. Flying fish roe’s crunchy golden jewel-dots next to salmon roe’s plumper pearls, spilling saline nectar. Amberjack next to its cousin, striped jack. Madai, red sea bream, whose lean, translucent flesh resists just enough before yielding. And kinmedai, golden-eye snapper, so buttery among its white-fleshed kin that it feels like cream in your mouth. (“An enviable fish,” head sushi chef Matthew Foreman confided as he slid it across.) Each morsel gets its judiciously selected condiment, yakumi. A tiny ring of scallions, a ribbon of olive oil, or a fish-sauce caramel for the perfectly seared foie gras, sweet and insanely good. A single shiso leaf for the Santa Barbara uni brought its complex, curry-like flavor so strikingly to the sea urchin’s salinity that I immediately ordered another.
[inline_image id=”1″ align=”” crop=”tall”]One night, I was recommended the Tasmanian sea trout that hadn’t previously impressed me. “Tonight it is good”—pronounced with the authority of someone who knows his craft. I did well to trust. The difference in color and texture was striking. There are advantages to perching where costly fish glisten under watchful eyes. Many a fabulous order came from letting myself be tempted by what floated by. Or sizzled on the hibachi, or wafted a delicious aroma. Linger, if you’d like. Order not all at once, but in stages. Let instinct guide. I’ve seldom experienced such synergy between taste, sight, and smell—an intoxicating synesthesia.
Meanwhile, the staff will advise on the sakes. The range is ample, all premium “junmai.” If you’re lucky, they’ll explain the polishing of rice, the fundamental importance of water, placing images in your head that swirl alongside the menu’s terse but lyrical descriptions. Try the Otokoyama, made with snowmelt from Hokkaido, clean and elemental as spring water. (Drinking out of the cedar box adds woodsy notes. Try it both ways.) Or the Wakatake, a higher-grade daiginjo, fragrant and complex, served in a stemmed glass that lets the aromas unfold, fruity and floral. Or try a milky nigori, unfiltered sake, that slips like silk on the tongue. “The process of making these is so hard,” Cole says. “It’s so refined and specific. It’s all about the water, and the time. To me, the time spent to make premium sake—it’s the epitome of Japanese.”
Makimono (sushi rolls), their own section, are likable and playful, showing a penchant for mixing serious and fun. But it’s in the hot and cold tastings, composed dishes collaboratively conceived, that Uchi’s creativity finds fuller expression. Here, the dishes’ more numerous ingredients reflect a wide field of inspiration: beer-braised lamb belly, lemongrass, kimchi. At times, flavors teeter on the verge of competing. The best convince, with sudden visionary clarity, that the creaminess of cooked scallop is, in fact, meant to keep company with tart tamarind, candied bacon, and peppery nasturtium. Each flavor bold enough to overwhelm, here expertly harnessed to enhance. In one of the most enchanting summer specials, house-made umeboshi (pickled, salted plum) and windowpane slices of A5 Wagyu lardo formed a latticework of flavor for ripe Comeback Creek tomato and the sweetest fresh plums. The lardo’s smokiness insinuated itself into the juices that pooled, and the delicate flavors lingered like an ode to summer.
There’s a science to all this gustatory pleasure. Take the machi cure, yucca chips layered with smoky baby yellowtail medallions, Marcona almonds, golden raisins, flying fish roe, and Asian pear, a symphony of golds, a dish from which I could not seem to escape. At every turn, it was my fate. When I didn’t order it, it came in a chef-chosen lineup or was sent out on the house (when—coincidentally?—Cole was in town). The dish is textbook perfect. The delicate smokiness of the fish, cold-smoked over applewood. The crunchy butteriness of the almonds (distinct from that of the yucca), the sweetness of the raisins, the intense pop and saline shock of the roe, the gush of crisp pear. Each time I found new layers; each time I loved it differently and more.
Executive pastry chef Andrew Lewis’ work extends the aesthetic. Take a signature dessert. In a vessel like a small fishbowl, intense lime cream was topped with compressed watermelon batons, slushy frozen watermelon polyps, green orbs of cucumber, and the dark hash marks of puffed rice, toasted almost black, assertive and crunchy. The dish appeared alien; it was insanely addictive. This is the brilliance of Uchi’s standouts. Perfect on a technical level, exquisitely conceived, they throw you out of orbit only to pull you into theirs. You feel at once manipulated and thrilled. Gustatorially, with Pavlovian precision, they’re teaching you to crave.
[inline_image id=”3″ align=”r” crop=”wide”]The more I went, the more I felt the pull.
“We call it perfect bite,” Cole says. “We’re trying to create an entire meal where every bite is perfect. And that,” he says, “is so Japanese.”
Not everything entranced. Hot dishes were in small ways uneven. In a surprising slip, walu walu was overcooked. Wonderful traditional fried tofu came molten and custardy, with a coating so miraculously thin it shattered and dissolved simultaneously on the tongue, while sunset-colored bonito shavings melted into campfire smokiness. But thin-sliced Kabocha squash’s delicate flavor got lost under its tempura. In the duck nabe (hot pot), which our waitress mixed tableside with a flourish, every aspect of crispy, rich duck confit, oozing egg, rice, and greens was inviting. But small, silky mushrooms’ outsized vinegary bite made us reel back. The kitchen has an impressive range, from gossamer-light to bold or classic. If anything, weaknesses registered at the extremes (too-light flavor untethered; strong flavor squawking).
And then there was this. One evening I requested what Foreman later explained they affectionately dub “soma,” short for server’s omakase, server’s choice. I felt his careful consideration of my preferences, of previous dishes liked and disliked. There were lovely surprises, like baby bonito with candied garlic and garlic oil, strong and sultry. But I felt the pressure of favorites. I’d asked for adventure and even invention, given carte blanche and hoped for a genie unleashed. Nothing deviated from the menu. And there, though I’d expressly mentioned I’d had it before, was the machi cure. Inescapable. I flirted with frustration, feeling the grand arc and its limits. But only for an instant. Stronger was the tug of new cravings. This is Uchi’s special genius. They stretch the net; the fish is caught.