Saving the Arches: Uchi's Daryl Kunik on Renovating the Old Felix Restaurant

Uchi, the new sushi restaurant opening soon at Westheimer and Montrose, is finally taking shape. The famous arched windows of its predecessor -- the much beloved Felix Mexican Restaurant -- have been recreated and installed. The drywall is up. The lighting is being wired. And the Austin import is hiring its Houston crew this week. It should be open before the year is over.

Last Friday afternoon, Uchi co-owner Daryl Kunik couldn't stop beaming as he gave a tour of the modern Japanese restaurant, which was painstakingly crafted from the ashes (and termite-decimated timbers) of Felix. "It was a lot of work to reuse this building," he said. "But in the end, it's worth it. It's worth it to save a part of Houston's past."

"We didn't want to come here and be slick, you know," he laughed. Kunik and the entire Uchi crew were highly cognizant of moving out of the safety of Austin, where the original Uchi under James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole and its little sister restaurant, Uchiko, are two of the capital's brightest stars. Houston is uncharted territory, and they weren't about to muck up Uchi's entrance by destroying one of the city's most iconic restaurants.

Instead, expect the Houston version of Uchi to be as much a neighborhood hangout as a destination restaurant -- even though it will still require reservations.

One thing is certain in the new space: Uchi isn't aiming to compete with the ultra-luxe Katsuya by Starck -- another famous imported sushi restaurant -- that's opening soon at West Ave. Although it's still studs now, Uchi already feels like a warm, welcoming space.

"It's more about textures. It's not about slick finishes," says Kunik as he discussed the wealth of reclaimed lumber that will decorate the restaurant, from a stacked timber entry to wood tiles on the sushi bar. "A warm feeling is really what we're trying to get out of it all."

"It's about a reclaimed building," he explained, elaborating on the choice of reclaimed wood, which also features heavily at Uchiko. "It's about how to reuse an old building."

Reusing it in this case meant making molds of the old window arches so that they could be recast in concrete in Austin, before being shipped back to Houston and reinstalled. The old frames were too eaten by termites to be salvaged. The salvaging doesn't extend to the Felix sign out front, however, which will need to be taken down eventually. Where it will go from there isn't decided yet.

What has been decided is that the restaurant will seat 160 people when it finally opens, half in the main dining room and half in the more casual bar area. There is a private room with a view onto the kitchen, as well as a semi-private room with a view onto a shared courtyard; Uchi is next door to the soon-to-open Southside Espresso, roaster Sean Marshall's new coffee shop.

And, like the original, this Uchi will have an outdoor "holding" area that abuts a busy street -- just swap Lamar here for Westheimer -- and features free passed bites to quell your hunger while you wait.

While most other staff is being hired this week, Uchi is sending down its chef de cuisine -- Beaumont-born Kaz Edwards -- to captain the Houston kitchen. He'll be assisted by Monica Glen as pastry chef, also moving down to Houston from Uchi Austin, who was Phillip Speer's longtime assistant. In a tribute to how much Uchi has grown since its opening in 2003, Speer -- who was once just the pastry chef there -- is now Culinary Director of the entire Uchi group.

Uchi's current stop may be here, Houston, but don't think we'll be their last.

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