There's a lot riding on the launch of the new Uchi in Houston. Tyson Cole's Austin outposts -- Uchi and Uchiko -- stand apart as "destination" restaurants in Texas, venues that have attained national recognition in part because of Cole's success as a competitive chef on television and in part because of the sheer novelty of high-end, high-concept, and high-profile Japanese-inspired cuisine in landlocked Central Texas.
As a native Southern Californian, I was skeptical about Japanese cuisine in Texas. It would be hard to rival, I imagined, the availability of ingredients and the local culinary traditions of my home state, where Japanese nationals have lived and thrived for more than century. (The tragic story of discrimination against Japanese in East Texas in the early part of the twentieth century is too often glossed over in the annals of Texas history. All of those rice fields between Houston and Orange to the north of Interstate 10? They were all planted by Japanese before Federal law made it illegal for them to own land there.)
But since moving to the Lone Star State more than three years ago, I've had some thrilling meals at Uchi and Uchiko in the River City.
For the first few years that I lived in Austin, one of our state's leading wine professionals curated Cole's list. June Rodil -- named "best sommelier in Texas" at the annual Texas Sommelier Conference in 2009 -- authored an adventurous and often courageous wine list at both Austin locations, with unexpected and often refreshingly surprising European offerings for an otherwise California "Cab" and "Chard"-friendly crowd (local celebrity Lance Armstrong, I've been told, famously orders Heitz Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon when he dines there).
June's long gone, and there's no wine director per se (beyond the group's Austin-based corporate buyer). But her original list survives partially in the Houston incarnation, even though many of her more off-the-beaten-track lots have found their way to the cutting room floor.
There's not much on Cole's menu that I could responsibly pair with a Gaja Barolo Dagromis (a tannic, dense however exquisite red from Italy at $250) or a Chapoutier Hermitage Le Méal (one of Europe's most famous and coveted single-vineyard designated wines from Northern Rhône at $470). I might reach for the Château Montelena Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa ($108) because I've always loved the acidity and balance in the estate's wines (unusual for the category). And if I had to go red, my number one pick would be the Planeta Cerasuolo di Vittoria ($55), a traditional expression of Sicily from an otherwise modern producer: A blend of Nero d'Avola and Frappato from the southern Sicilian coast, this bright, light-bodied and lip-smacking red is a natural fit for seafood.
The white wine selection is much more balanced than the red, and I was geeked to find two of my favorite wines: Coenobium from Central Italy ($60) and Graville-Lacoste from Bordeaux, France ($50).
Both wines -- driven by acidity and minerality -- will work well with the spice and savory character of Cole's cuisine and remain relatively affordable. Other still white highlights for me were La Craie Vouvray ($11 by the glass, $43 by the bottle; hello gorgeous acidity!) and the Hugel Gewürztraminer ($52 by the bottle; hello again acidity, my friend).
And as far as sparkling is concerned, Champagne by Larmandier-Bernier at $102 isn't exactly a steal but it's probably the ideal wine to do by the bottle there. We also love the Henriot Champagne Souverain, offered at $16 by the glass ($90 bottle). Champagne's versatility, bright acidity, low alcohol, and bubbles make it the nearly perfect pairing, in my view, for the wide spectrum of flavors that you encounter at a place like Uchi.
Why no sake recommendations, you ask? Sake's actually not wine even though we generally classify it as such. But not to worry: I'll be back!
Uchi on Westheimer opened last night.