Once a month, the chefs at Uchi get together and visit various farmers' markets around town for fresh, seasonal veggies to use in unique culinary creations the following Monday. They choose the best looking vegetables from local farmers and the best Gulf fish from fish mongers, and then they retire to the kitchen for hours to create gustatory masterpieces.
If you just walk into Uchi on any given day, you won't find these items on the menu, or even as specials. No, this opportunity for the chefs to really show off (as if every meal isn't a show at Uchi) happens the second Monday of every month, and you must have a reservation. And you must make a reservation far in advance. And even if you get your name on the list, there's no guarantee it will be drawn at random for one of the ten coveted seats at Uchi's Community Table.
Last month, my name was drawn.
Over the din of the usual Monday evening dinner service, chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards emerged from the kitchen to explain each dish, while Michael Castillo, a former sous chef at Uchi Houston, who recently moved to the Austin outpost, provided commentary. Each of the dishes was more impressive than the last, culminating with whole roasted Gulf red snapper balanced on a long wooden board on the shoulders of two chefs as it was brought from the kitchen to the dining room.
"I couldn't believe they balanced it like that," one of the other chefs exclaimed, wide-eyed. "I thought for sure they were going to drop it."
Fortunately for us, the fish made it safely to our table, where it was promptly picked apart, its soft white flesh taking on some of the acidity from the jewel-colored tomatoes on top of it. But the magnificent fish platter wasn't even the best dish of the night.
The meal started with a simple soup that resembled a hearty leek and potato blend, followed by a short rib cooked "en papillote," in paper, to preserve moisture. Next up was a divine salad of broccolini and crisp kale. The warm green salad was a highlight for me, not only because it was one of the healthiest offerings, but also because the flavors were incredibly simple and crisp.
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The salad was followed by the favorite platter of the night for just about everyone at our table: A seemingly incongruous mixture of pork belly, lump crab meat, avocado, marcona almonds, yellow raisins and water spinach all stewing in their combined juices. Glazed pork belly isn't something I'd think to pair with avocado. Or crab meat. And crab isn't something I'd think to pair with raisins. And avocado and raisins? What's that about?
And yet...and yet, the flavors melded together into something sweet and earthy and delicate all at the same time. Castillo noted that water spinach is one of his favorite vegetables, and it's easy to see why, as it has a mild, nutty flavor. The pork belly was cooked perfectly so the skin was crunchy and the fat melted in my mouth, while the avocado and raisins provided a freshness and a brightness not often associated with swine. The decadent lump crab meat was just the sweet icing on the cake.
Actually, the sweetest part of the meal was receiving the check: Only $45 for the entire meal.
The next drawing for a seat at Uchi's Community Table is today. Email the restaurant at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them you want your name in the lottery for the next dinner on June 9!