It was a Thursday night, and Uptown Sushi was packed to the gills. Throbbing techno music made it feel like we were entering a dance club. The black-clad hostess led my companion and me past the loud cocktail-lounge area to the only two seats left at the crowded sushi bar. The actual counter space allotted to us was so limited that we were having trouble opening both our menus at the same time. That's when my old buddy John Bebout came to the rescue.
Bebout walked over and invited us to join him and a friend who were seated at one of the oversize suede booths that line the semicircular back wall of the dining room's upper level. In the see-and-be-seen environment of Uptown Sushi, these are the best seats in the house. We gladly traded our precarious perch at the bar for one of the skyboxes.
Bebout and his friend were in the process of devouring a double order of yellowtail, two exotic sushi rolls and some apple martinis. I've long known Bebout as a hamburger and oyster connoisseur. I never knew he was also a raw-fish lover, but he turned out to be quite an authority on the subject. And in his opinion, Uptown Sushi serves the best in the city.
1131 Uptown Park Boulevard, 713-871-1200.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursdays and Fridays; noon to midnight Saturdays.
Tuna tar tare: $11
Red tip clam: $1.75
Red roll: $10
Lickety split roll: $16
My companion and I started out with a Japanese-Italian appetizer called "chef Don's original tuna tar tare," a martini glass full of fresh, glistening raw tuna chunks tossed in sesame oil and spicy wasabi and sprinkled with shavings of aged Parmesan cheese. I washed mine down with some delicate cold sake.
We also got some "red tip clam" sashimi, which has a big ebb-tide flavor and a dense texture that might remind you of clam chewing gum. I love the stuff. The flavor of the "scuba diver roll," made of soft-shell crab topped with salmon, tuna and avocado, was much subtler.
The four of us shared an order of Kobe beef, four carpaccio-style paper-thin slices of raw meat spread out on a plate with a Japanese salad of sprouts and vegetable shavings in the center. The beef didn't have much of the distinctive Kobe marbling -- it looked like a pretty standard slice of USDA Choice to me. But Kobe or not, everybody at the table loved the stuff. So much so that Bebout immediately sent the waiter back for a second order.
"The scenery is as good as the sushi here," Bebout said, gazing over the expanse of dining room. The whimsical lighting fixtures in the middle of the sushi bar looked like giant sea creatures, and the modern furniture included chairs made of transparent plastic. But I think he was really referring to the beautiful people who occupied the space.
In search of the men's room, I walked past several tables of drop-dead gorgeous women in designer clothes. Descending the stairs in front of them, I felt like a total dork. At the bottom of the steps, I asked an employee where the facilities could be found, and suddenly the dorky feeling became much more acute.
The staircase was equipped with a sculptural stainless-steel railing that continued into the room beyond the edge of the steps. When I turned sharply to ask for directions, I struck my knee into the railing so hard I nearly blacked out. I tried to look nonchalant as I limped to the bathroom. When I got home, I had a lump the size of a hen's egg on my kneecap.
My second visit to Uptown Sushi was on a Monday evening. The lounge was empty, and there were plenty of tables available. We took a seat at a table on the lower level next to the sushi bar.
We started out by ordering two of the daily sashimi specials -- the fatty tuna called toro, and uni, or sea urchin. On the same plate, we also got a double order of yellowtail. The toro cost twice as much as the yellowtail. It was a little fattier and quite rich. But honestly, there wasn't that big a difference. The yellowtail was incredibly fresh and silky in texture. The uni looked like a pile of butterscotch pudding. By fishing around with our chopsticks, we separated out the individual lobes of urchin.
The first time I ate sea urchin was in a seafood market in Santiago, Chile. To serve it, the fishmonger simply lopped off the top of the shell and handed it to me. The lobes of urchin were bright red, icy cold and had the crunchiness of an Italian lemon ice. The intense flavor was something like iodine sherbet.
The tan-colored uni on our plate at Uptown Sushi had a creamy texture and a much subtler taste, kind of like a shellfish puree. I asked the waiter if the uni had been frozen. When he returned from the kitchen, he said the manager had assured him that it had not. Perhaps this milder and creamier uni is a different variety from the one I ate in Chile.
My dining companion mixed up the usual blend of soy sauce and wasabi in a little bowl. I used to engage in this sauce-making exercise myself. But lately the sushi snobs have taken the joy out of it. (Read Noriko Takiguchi's "How to Eat Sushi" on www.bayosphere.com, for example.)
Mixing wasabi and soy sauce is not something sushi purists do. But then again, sushi experts look down on the wasabi served in American sushi restaurants to begin with. That mound of green stuff we eat isn't really wasabi. It's horseradish with food coloring added.
Real wasabi is a hard-to-grow Japanese rhizome that is ridiculously expensive in this country. The Japanese sometimes dab tiny dots of real wasabi on a piece of sashimi. But they never mix it with soy sauce. And they never eat it with sushi rolls because the chef has already put the proper amount of wasabi between the fish and the rice. And no Japanese sushi lover would ever think of dipping the rice side of a sushi roll into soy sauce. It makes the rice fall apart.
Sushi restaurants in Japan never serve tempura, either. The combination of oily tempura and delicate raw fish is considered not only unappetizing but also unhealthy. The idea of a sushi roll with tempura-cooked soft-shell crab inside seems unbelievably daring to Japanese sushi eaters.
Sushi rolls, especially those that include avocado, chile peppers and lots of different fish, are an American invention. And some of these American sushi rolls have become so popular, they've been imported back to Japan.
I admire the formalized rituals of serious Japanese sushi, but I also take great joy in the idea that the rebellious youth of Tokyo thumb their noses at the establishment by eating California rolls. Personally, I've decided to seek the middle ground. I will stop mixing the wasabi and the soy sauce together. But I won't stop eating outlandish Americanized sushi rolls.
Uptown Sushi seems to be taking a similar middle-of-the-road approach. There are plenty of exotic raw fish selections like toro and uni for the purists. And then there are outrageous combinations like the raw tuna and Parmesan we tried on our first visit, along with some pretty outrageous rolls.
Standouts include the "lickety split roll," a bizarre-looking but tasty concoction of tuna, crawfish, cucumber and sprouts, topped with spicy tuna, yellowtail, salmon and avocado. It looks like a mosaic inside, and it has a satisfying crunch.
After a couple of bites of the spicy "red roll," which features shrimp and avocado with crunchy cucumber, fresh jalapeño and sprouts on the inside and a layer of bright red tuna slathered with a red pepper paste on the outside, I had to order another beer. That one is truly hot.
We finished off with some cold and crunchy flying fish roe and some sweet and tender marinated unagi (freshwater eel) sushi rolls. Then we tried the tempura cheesecake dessert, which sounded clever, but didn't quite work. The crust was nice, but the cheesecake lost its firm, crumbly texture and became completely molten.
Looking around the restaurant, I noticed a group on the upper level who had ordered champagne. In fact, they were hard to miss. The bubbly came in a glowing Plexiglas ice bucket. The light inside of it changed colors so the bucket went from blue to green to pink. And so did the diners' faces.
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At the table next to us, a stunning young blond woman dressed in elegant black was set off perfectly by the white dinner plate in front of her. Neatly arrayed on it were six pieces of yellowtail sushi and a colorful sushi roll.
When the plate first arrived, the woman put all the pickled ginger in a dipping bowl filled with soy sauce and then nibbled at it. Then she held her chopsticks as if they were a knife and fork, and tried to saw a piece of sushi in half. Half an hour later, when the waiter took her plate away, five pieces of sushi were still there -- and the roll was untouched.
My mind reeled. Why did she order all that food and then not eat it? How could she have passed up that incredible yellowtail? Maybe she didn't understand sushi. And then it slowly dawned on me. Uptown Sushi attracts lots of serious sushi eaters like my buddy Bebout. But it also draws lots of serious fashionistas, like the strikingly beautiful woman next to me. For her, the sushi was just a prop. She didn't care what it tasted like -- she just wanted to look good while not eating it.
And she did.