This is part three of my chef chat with Chef de Cuisine Kaz Edwards of Uchi Houston. Parts one and two ran in this space in the last couple of days. This week, Kaz Edwards, chef de cuisine at Uchi Houston, has given us a glimpse of what it's like to start with a restaurant straight out of culinary school and work your way up to the top, as well as what it's like to be in a kitchen where ideas are freely exchanged and promoted.
The specials on the Uchi menu always start with an idea, which is then developed and refined during a rigorous two-week process. Even then, a dish may not pass muster, undergoing further modification and refinement before being presented to the paying customer.
The Uchi menu is quite extensive, and I left it up to Edwards to let me taste whatever he wanted.
To start, Edwards's sous chef, Page Pressley, prepared a dish called Bincho To Negi, which means simply "albacore and onions." The dish was made of lemon-cured albacore with confit onions, charred green onion puree, candied onion chips, baby heirloom tomatoes and shaved nasu (eggplant) botarga, and it was mind-boggling just to know what went into it.
Besides the visual artistry that they added to the dish, I really loved the wispy sweet crispness of the candied onion chips by themselves. When I tried them with the lightly tangy lemon-cured albacore dipped in charred green onion puree, along with a bite of heirloom tomato, it felt like a lightbulb was going off in my head, as if to say, "Ah, so now I know why these things were combined."
And then there was the added complexity and subtlety of the umami flavor imparted by the shaved eggplant botarga. This last component would not have been missed had it not been there, but its addition really resonated on the palate, a superb finishing touch to a dish that had me nodding my head and "mmm-mmm-ing" with each bite.
Next up, Edwards plated the Shiro Sake, his entire torso bent so that his head was directly above the line of the plate as he carefully laid down each component.
I don't typically care for smoked salmon, but I loved the delicate aroma and flavors of the cured ivory king salmon smoked in black lime. The salmon was nestled next to similarly colored wedges of lemon juice-compressed cantaloupe, along with a biscuit-size rectangle of butter-toasted pumpernickel, lemon powder, fennel four ways (fresh shaved fennel, pickled fennel stem, fennel fronds and fennel pollen), preserved lemon and mustard seed mostarda. Then there were frozen crème fraîche semifreddo discs topped with fennel pollen, black pepper and lemon zest. The entire dish was garnished with broccoli blossom.
"The broccoli blossom connects the bitterness of the mustard seeds with the broccoli blossom, so you kind of pull those two flavors together, and it kind of rounds out everything, giving it this fresh, bitter flavor," explained Edwards of his choice for garnish. I didn't get the subtle hint of the broccoli blossom until he pointed it out. For me, it was the preserved lemon and mustard seed mostarda that was a revelation. It was sweet and fragrant, tangy and yet bitter. Its stronger flavors provided a contrast but did not overpower the smoked salmon/cauliflower combo. I loved it.
As much as I loved the first two courses, the final savory course I was presented with, the Wagyu Midori, was probably the best of all the dishes I've tasted at Uchi Houston, period. In fact, I'm going to use this article to lobby for it to be placed on the menu permanently, because it was that good.
There was the visual aspect, the pop of the vivid, fuschia beet-pickled shallot, which was arranged on the plate to look like ribbons tying a birthday present -- just gorgeous. In fact, someone on Facebook saw a photo of this dish that I'd posted, and rightfully described it as "sex on a plate."
How else can you describe the utterly delicious combination of caramelized, seared Wagyu, which had been basted in butter, fish caramel and tamari? Or the sensory rush of pleasure when you tasted the added crunch of the deep-fried koshi hikari, or sushi rice, that had been sprinkled into the middle of the dish? And how about the kind of earthy crunchiness imparted by the candied Marcona almond "soil" combined with the powder made of sushi rice and oil from the fried sushi rice?
It was the addition of the fried-sushi-rice-oil-powder that was difficult to quantify, but Edwards explained the intent this way: "What's cool is that you're going to eat it, and then it's going to dissolve, and then it's going to have that mouth-coating that oils or vinaigrettes will have. So it's all a play on textures and mouth feel." The entirety of the plate was simply stunning -- let me repeat, stunning. It will be available all weekend, so try it if you can. I'm plotting a way to go back myself.
The final dish I tasted was a St. Germain liqueur dessert by Uchi Houston's pastry chef, Monica. "People have been going nuts over this dessert, so while it's a special, we're probably going to put it on the permanent menu," Edwards said. Named Okashi and served in a cast-iron pot, on first bite, the dessert impales your senses with the cold sweetness of cantaloupe sorbet, accented by the almost perfume-y floral taste of elderflower, as well as buttermilk sabayon. It was like somebody captured the essence of spring and put it in that dessert; divine.
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I can say without hesitation that each and every dish I tried was spectacular.
I'm going to close with a quote by Edwards, who explained the thought process behind the plating of each dish: "Most of our plate-ups are very architecturally based. We try to build height, we try to build varying looks of the plate, so it's not flat and monotone in look. We find that if a plate comes out and looks flat, then it's not going to taste as good as it would, because the customer doesn't get as excited about it. If you get a plate that comes out to you that's got different heights and different colors, and you're looking at it and trying to figure out what is what, then your taste buds are going to dance as well."