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.