Friday, June 15, 2007

Food Trip to Austin - Part 2 - Uchi

I have been searching for the perfect fusion of Japanese and American cuisine. In my search, I have found a few dishes and restaurants that come close:

-an inspiring sashimi dish at Roy's in Austin;

-some overly Americanized sushi rolls, with a lot of sweet and fried ingredients, at Houston's Blue Fish House;

-a much more Japanese version of fusion at Megu in New York City;

-Houston's best Japanese food, which includes some outstanding fusion dishes, at Kubo's.

Despite these finds, I knew that Japanese fusion could be even better -- that it might unite the wonderful simplicity and flavors of Japanese cooking with the best ingredients and techniques of American gourmet cuisine.

I finally found a better version of Japanese fusion. It is a wildly popular restaurant in Austin called Uchi.

Uchi has a large, almost intimidating, fixed menu with sushi, fusion sushi rolls, grilled fish, and raw and cooked fusion dishes called "tastings." Uchi also has a list of 10 or so nightly specials. And it puts those specials together in a 10-course "Omakase" tasting menu. To get the best sampling, we ordered the Omakase.

Our 10 courses were a parade of ingredients that ranged from raw to cooked, from Japanese to trendy American. I failed to take notes, and ultimately the evening became a wonderful blur. Yet a few dishes stood out:

-Tuna sashimi with fuji apple, goat cheese, and pumkinseed oil;

-Applewood smoked salmon with thin plantain chips, marcona almonds, and currants;

-Pan seared grouper fillet with Meyer lemon puree; and

-Duck breast with heirloom Rainier cherries and warm apple butter.

Although Uchi advertises itself as a Japanese restaurant, this tasting menu seemed much more American in its ingredients. For instance, Uchi served cheese, which is rarely served in Japan because 85 percent of all Japanese adults are lactose intolerant. Similarly, Uchi served a carpaccio of escolar, which is illegal in Japan. And it served a barely-smoked salmon, which is taboo in Japan, due to the possibility of parasitic worms. Plus, even when ingredients were not taboo to the Japanese, they were more likely to consist of trendy American items, such as marcona almonds, Rainier cherries, and Meyer lemons, and not ingredients used in traditional Japanese cooking.

Despite these American features, the simplicity of the dishes -- and the prevalence of raw fish --reflected a Japanese aesthetic. I was impressed with the creative combinations, particularly in the use of fish with fruits such as apples, currants, lemons, and yamamomo berries. I could tell it was the cooking of a restlessly, inventive young chef, full of interesting ideas and contrasts.

Unsurprisingly for such a young restaurant, we had a few minor complaints. First, Uchi does not take reservations after 7:00, and the line by 8:00 appeared well over an hour long. Restaurants with great service do not put their customers through that sort of ordeal.

Second, although Japanese cuisine uses a lot of rice and noodles, my wife complained that this 10-course menu was almost completely devoid of rice and grains. I agreed that the repetition of the fish/meat-greens-fruit combination seemed a bit unbalanced.

Finally, the only dessert course consisted of a few nearly-ephemeral marble-sized balls of sorbet. I thought surely the sorbet was a transitional course, as in most tasting menus. But it was the end of line. Most of the best tasting menus go over the top on dessert, serving two, three, or four different dishes. For a $95 per person tasting menu, a little scoop of sorbet was underwhelming at best.

Despite some flaws, Uchi is a real pioneer in Japanese/American fusion. It is the kind of restaurant that I would expect to find in Houston. Instead, if we want truly creative Japanese fusion food, we are going to have to travel to Austin.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear dessert was anti-climatic, my friend is the Pastry chef and he is fabulous!! you should have asked the waiter for something, or inquired ,for more than sorbet- at that price. ... I imagine the tasting was incredible too, I enjoyed mine last time I went. Home slice on s.congress is great for pizza, the driskill is doing good things still even with bull gone, and sandra bullock;s new restaurant is supposed to be good, and also starlite! capital brasserie, fino, asti, vespaio, anywhere on s 1st for mexican. I think austin may have more mexican than houston, the aus. chronicle did something about the amount of mexican spots there.

Plinko said...

i've dine at uchi before and loved it! anytime i am in austin, Uchi is the first destination.

chef gadsby and i are good friends with tyson cole (chef/owner) and philly (pastry chef). we always are welcomed warmly and get an amazing meal.

anytime anyone asks me where i can get sushi, i tell them go to austin. uchi is the only place in texas to get good sushi.

until now ...

chef gadsby and i working on a new japanese restaurant and sushi project. it is to open mid december at washington and shepherd.

you must come by!
be ready to be blown away!

about philly's desserts. the presentation mat not be amazing, but his flavors are incredible. his ingredients simple and humble. i love his desserts and am a big supporter of philly. theres a lack of pastry chefs like him in texas. i am a pastry chef, so i know!

texas is a horrible place for desserts. all people want is somthing rich and heavy. what philly and i do is give our guests something light and delicate. a great way to end the meal.

in houston, i am pushing desserts to be the end of a meal. something to compliment the dinner. i take note of what they have eaten and pair a dessert to compliment it. the dessert may be sweet, it may be savory.

well. i hope to see you when we open.

plinio sandalio

Anonymous said...

Ridiculous wait over 2 hours no courtesy from hostesses--wouldn't take reservations after 7pm-- Restaurant was very LOUD (customers and bad music), very expensive, very small portions on entrees. The food was good, but we were all still hungry when we left.

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