First Look at Uchi Houston

I wasn't the only food writer at Uchi last night -- local writers and bloggers were scattered throughout the restaurant. When I got home, at least half a dozen Tweeps were abuzz over their dining experience. The consensus: amazing food, incredible service, and a bit of shock and horror over long waits for tables, even with reservations. One person with a reservation waited 100 minutes for a table; my party of four, with rez, waited almost an hour. Uchi's policy is to take a limited number of reservations each night and leave the rest of the seating open on a first-come, first-served basis.

A one-hour wait for a table is a little long, but I liked that they tried to mitigate the issue by having servers hand out small bites (rolls, fried onion rings) to the growing crowd. Once we were seated, we were delighted throughout the meal by our knowledgeable and enthusiastic waiter, Dale -- Dale is the king of Uchi, and I love him.

Once we were seated and settled with drinks, Dale gave us a quick overview of the menu, and asked if we wanted to order dishes straight from there or if we wanted to have him take the wheel and guide our meal. We opted for a combination -- we selected a few dishes, which Dale supplemented with his own picks. When he suggested we start off with roasted Brussels sprouts I was skeptical, but these deeply-roasted sprouts were tossed with a bright lemon chili that made them positively addictive.

The sprouts were quickly followed by machi cure -- smoked baby yellowtail, yucca crisp, Marcona almonds, Asian pear, and garlic brittle. Meant to be eaten nacho-style, the yellowtail was smooth and fatty against the thin and crispy yucca. This was one of many dishes our server encouraged us to eat with our hands. I would call the machi cure flavors subtle, but don't confuse that with boring -- it's a light and lovely way to begin the meal, and I would also love it as a "breather" between more powerful dishes.

I have this weird thing where I hate salmon except in sushi/sashimi form--cooked salmon BAD, raw salmon GOOD. Naturally, I fell in big love with the yokai berry, Atlantic salmon with dinosaur kale, Asian pear, blueberries, and yuzu. "Dinosaur kale" is just plain fun (especially when you dine with a geologist), and the dish was as delicious as it was architectural. The sweet/tart blueberry on the plate should not be missed, and bridges the gap between the rich salmon and crispy, earthy kale perfectly.

Another favorite was the walu walu from the hot menu. Oak-grilled escolar is served with candied citrus, yuzupon, and myoga. My husband thought the broth tasted a lot like agedashi tofu, but this was much brighter and a bit sweeter from the citrus. Four of us split one dish, which is a substantial piece of fish, and quite unctuous; one spoonful was more than enough to satisfy me. Less successful was the sashimi yaki, an oak-grilled chicken breast prepared with lemongrass and cilantro. While juicy and flavorful, it didn't really "go" with the rest of the meal. I must give credit where due -- the cilantro was used judiciously, which I appreciate, and I think it's wonderful that there are options for non-sushi lovers.

And because no dinner is complete without pork belly, we finished up with the ham and eggs roll -- katsu pork belly with yolk custard and espelette. As decadent as you might imagine, the pork belly is crispy inside a generous layer of rice, which we were encouraged to drag through all three of the accompanying dipping sauces. The pork belly was fatty enough for me, so maybe three dipping sauces -- including one that is essentially mayonnaise -- was a bit of overkill. I'll just go with a brief hit of soy sauce next time.

Speaking of soy sauce, I didn't touch it once during the meal. Each dish had enough flavor, and many of them were so delicate that soy sauce would have destroyed them entirely. I encourage you to skip the soy sauce when you first try each dish and only add it when you feel it necessary. You won't want to miss the nuances.

It can be tough when a restaurant gets so much hype prior to opening, but they are already working with a successful model and many of the kitchen and front-of-house staff are experienced Austin transplants. If they continue with the current levels of attention to detail to food, and get a handle on the wait time for customers with reservations, Uchi will live up to every accolade. My expectations were exceeded, and our next reservation is already booked.

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Christina Uticone