Uchi Takes Houston
Check out more photos from the chic interior of Uchi in our slideshow.
There is a certain anxiety and trepidation to dining at Uchi for the first time. Even if you're looking forward to your visit, even if you've saved your pennies and carefully made reservations for the evening and laid out your clothes for the big night, Uchi is intimidating. But it shouldn't be.
Yes, what Uchi offers is a carefully orchestrated marriage between haute cuisine and high art. And yes, you will come away having eaten one of the best meals of the year, or perhaps your life.
You'll dine on ruddy maguro sashimi with idiosyncratic pearls of fluffy goat cheese and slivers of Fuji apples in a musky, salty pumpkinseed oil and crispy, citrusy, caramelized Brussels sprouts — roasted in lemon-chile powder — that will make you want to hoard the bowl and savor each tiny cabbage. You'll find a stunning array of fresh fish at the sushi bar, but you'll also find triumphs such as two pert pieces of foie gras nigiri, the liver charred slightly and draped across perfectly sculpted lengths of rice, like smoked eel but with the heady rush of unadulterated fat. You'll emerge drunk not on sake but with the sensory overload of it all and a keen sense that the meal you ate was good for your very soul.
Certainly, from the moment you set foot inside Uchi's little rotunda-like entrance and are greeted with a beaming smile, any anxieties and trepidations you may have had will fall away. You'll feel the oddly paired sensations of excitement and relaxation. More important, you'll feel welcome.
And that's exactly how Uchi planned it, said Director of Culinary Operations Philip Speer. "It's comfortable," Speer told me by phone one afternoon. "I think of it as casual — you can come in and just have a good time. We always want to maintain that neighborhood feel." A native Houstonian, Speer worked with owner and executive chef Tyson Cole at the original Austin location of Uchi for six years before moving back to his hometown to help open the first — and, so far, only — outpost of the award-winning sushi restaurant.
Uchi Houston was built as a combination of both the original Uchi and its little sister in Austin, Uchiko, and borrows heavily from the latter's super-casual vibe and "Japanese farmhouse cuisine" menu. It's known as a neighborhood joint despite its pedigree — despite Cole's recent James Beard Award and despite another Beard Award for Uchiko's executive chef, Paul Qui. Speer hopes that Uchi Houston, with its industrial-chic dining room and location inside the shell of the beloved Felix Mexican Restaurant, will eventually come to be seen the same way.
Uchi is just one of the transformative restaurants that have opened along Lower Westheimer in the past year. L'Olivier has taken over a former adult bookstore next to Numbers and made it into a classic French bistro with a sunny, modern charm. Across the street from Tex-Mex palace El Real, Chris Shepherd's Underbelly is changing the way Houstonians view their own city's cuisine, and next door, at craft beer mecca The Hay Merchant, Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd are changing the way people think about beer.
It makes sense, then, that Uchi should completely alter the expectations that people have for a "neighborhood restaurant." At first glance, a place that only offers one service a day — dinner, which the full kitchen staff starts preparing at 7 a.m. every day — and often requires reservations for that meal would seem inaccessible. A place that offers dishes with names like "walu walu" or ingredients such as rosemary smoke, espresso fish caramel or sanbaizu doesn't immediately ring true as an after-work stop-off or a place to grab a quick bite to eat. And you may have heard stories that meals at Uchi are priced like those at L'Idiot, the restaurant in Steve Martin's L.A. Story that required a credit check and a meeting with your financial planner beforehand.
So you may be surprised to find how inexpensive Uchi actually is. It's still a significant meal — especially for those who, as Speer puts it, want to "blow it up, try everything and get the whole experience" — but it's also the kind of place where you'll find that you would feel comfortable stopping in for a $3 sake and $6 spicy tuna roll during its daily happy hour from 5 to 6:30 p.m. (You can absolutely do so, too; dropping by and finding a table is easier than you'd expect.)
"We try to keep it familiar and fun and try to do fun, cool things with the food," said Speer. Those fun things include a blackberry "soil" and spheres of liquid juniper scattered playfully across a plate of very serious, very studiously grilled and sliced Wagyu beef. Or bacon sen, hearty pork belly that you tug off a simple wooden skewer with your lips as you relish the salty-sweet flavor of caramelized fish sauce and the ethereal briny waltz of bonito flakes across your tongue.
The former is $28 on the menu of daily specials, but the latter is only $6 on its "Sake Socials" happy hour menu. It's an egalitarian concept that takes all comers. And, yes, some of the dishes approach the $30 to $35 range — but, as with all things in life, you get what you pay for.
"In doing what we do — using the best products and having the best waitstaff — that translates into a more expensive restaurant," explained Speer. The emphasis on "best" is found even in the smallest items, such as the sushi rice, because these are the foundations of the restaurant itself. The rice is cooked from scratch every single day, by the same person, in a traditional four-foot-wide wooden bowl with a wooden paddle. As Speer told it, the sushi rice is "an absolutely sacred thing that we spend a lot of time and energy on."
And the high bar set by the food at Uchi is easily cleared by the waitstaff, who offer what is hands-down the best service in the city right now. Getting hired at the restaurant is no small task, either: A server must endure a rigorous four-part interview and a battery of personality tests, then prove their mettle during a four-to-six-week training period before they're even allowed to take a table. If it seems like overkill, it's not. The result is a well-trained and disciplined waitstaff that can anticipate your every move, customize meals to your dining style, give a thoughtful explanation of any dish on the menu and do it all with bright, bubbly smiles.
The staff tends to stick around, too. Seven months after opening, Uchi Houston has retained 80 percent of its original opening crew. "We buy in," said Speer of the spirit endemic to the Uchi staff. "We drink the Kool-Aid." It's vital to the very nature of the place, because Uchi wouldn't be a welcoming, neighborhood restaurant without that staff. And — for all the talk of accessibility — you might not be able to navigate the menu as well, either.
There are a multitude of ways to tackle the menu at Uchi. You can order à la carte, netting yourself dishes such as machi cure — an Uchi signature dish with smoked baby yellowtail amid crispy bites of dehydrated yuca, garlic brittle and salty Marcona almonds, all of which you can eat happily with your hands — or a ham-and-eggs roll with katsu pork belly and a trompe-l'il painting of a fried egg on the plate itself made with yolk custard.
The three tasting menus that Uchi offers are the best way to start for a newcomer, however. There is the chef's tasting, which — at ten courses — is the most omakase-esque service at the quasi-Japanese restaurant under the stewardship of chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards, another native Houstonian. There is the less hefty six-course signature tasting that allows you to enjoy a selection of Uchi's most requested and most popular dishes. And then there is the server's tasting, in which you allow your well-equipped server to completely customize a menu for you.
This is a very important thing, because the menu at Uchi can be impenetrable for people who aren't versed in the language of high-end, concept-driven restaurants such as Uchi — which, in a city such as ours, is most people. What we are, however, is adventurous and open-minded — and it's these same qualities that drew Tyson Cole to open Uchi in Houston above all other cities.
So indulge that adventurous Houstonian palate and dive into one of the tasting menus. And plan to be there for a few hours as plate after miraculous plate marches across your table, each one gently set down by one of the knowledgeable servers, each of whom has his or her own quirky language to describe the dish in front of you. Make that selection, as I did on my first visit, and your server will first determine your likes and dislikes ("no raw fish," for example, or "easy on the pork"), then guide you through each course with aplomb. In fact, my only complaint with the meal was that each dish wasn't delivered by our server, as I was curious to hear her own definitions of each plate and her own reasoning for choosing it. On the other hand, the "runner" service ensured that we didn't have to wait long between courses, which is — for me, at least — the lesser sin.
At the end of our first dinner, we'd demolished 14 courses between two people (12 savory plates and two desserts), along with four oversize glasses of high-end sake and two beers. The damage? $300 with tax and an extremely generous tip. And in that time, we'd enjoyed dishes made with such stunningly fresh and remarkably rare ingredients — precious, deep-cupped Kusshi oysters and cool, nearly translucent golden seabream over wonderfully room-temperature sushi rice that clung cleanly to itself — and with such talent and precision that it was difficult to argue with a $300 bill after such a feast.
I was lucky enough to get the same server, Jessica, on my return visit during Uchi's happy hour. She remembered every single course that I'd had eight days prior and reminded me with a pleasant, easygoing smile what they were so that I wouldn't have to duplicate them (and with a menu like Uchi's, you don't want to duplicate — you want to be blown away by something new every time). As she had the last time, Jessica started us out with lighter dishes — in this case, uchiviche and nasu nigiri — before moving on to heavier plates.
The uchiviche stands out as the only dish I haven't been fond of at Uchi, a rather uninspired collection of salmon and striped bass amidst a jagged field of bell pepper slices and some sultanas. It was oddly disjointed considering how seamlessly every other dish here is constructed. The exquisitely soft nasu (or eggplant) nigiri, however, changed the way both of my dining companions that night felt about eggplant. Such is the transformative power of a well-cooked vegetable coated in bright lemon and deepened with the rich, resonant, earthy flavors of miso and shio.
And even though we also ordered more "mainstream" items like a shag roll and a spicy tuna roll that night, those standards were handled and plated more beautifully than in any other sushi bar — the shag roll, for example, is centered in a pool of onyx-colored squid ink that radiates outward in strokes that are both exuberantly messy and carefully controlled. The squid ink has the same sweetly gratifying depth to it as hoisin sauce, a unique but somehow ideal pairing for the sun-dried tomato, buttery avocado and plump salmon inside the crunchy roll. Like that tuna sashimi with goat cheese and apples, the odd pairing shouldn't work — but it does.
How much did we pay for the spread? $30 per person.
Herein lies Uchi's real charm, too. It's high-end and accessible all at once, a neighborhood restaurant that raises the bar for food and service at every other restaurant, neighborhood or otherwise. Sometimes, Speer admitted, he'll look at the artful plates that are being sent out each night and grab one. "Dirty that up a little bit; that's too pristine," he'll instruct. "Put a little more soul into it."
If there's anything a neighborhood restaurant should have, it's soul. And Uchi has soul to spare.
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