Jul 6, 2010

Uchiko Preview

Today, Tyson Cole's new restaurant, Uchiko, opens. A few days ago, we got the chance to attend an Uchiko pre-opening dinner. The restaurant offered a half-price menu to attendees willing to give them a trial run before opening and give feedback on how things went.

In 2003, Cole opened Uchi as executive chef and co-owner. His presentation of Japanese food flavored with modern ingredients from all over the world quickly made Uchi one of Austin's hot spots. From my first meal there shortly after Uchi opened, it's become my favorite restaurant — not just because of the food, but also because of their precision — from the service to the aesthetics to the consistency of quality. Cole was named one of Food & Wine magazine's Best New Chefs of 2005 and the acclaim kept coming.

Today, Cole opens his second restaurant with Paul Qui, Uchi's former chef de cuisine, and also, one of the guys behind East Side King — a food trailer in East Austin behind Liberty bar, in command. (We fell in love with East Side King's Asian-flavored bar food earlier this year.) Uchiko will take some of the familiar Japanese flavors and combinations that we love from Uchi, but spin them off in a new direction, so don't expect a duplication of experience. What is the same is the attention to detail in the food, the presentation, the space (like Uchi, designed by Michael Hsu) which they call "Japanese farmhouse." You'll see a wall of charred pine — a traditional Japanese method used to seal wood, hand-painted tiles, tansu furniture, an incredible art piece made of slices of recycled paper (photo), gorgeous modern light fixtures, and a clean, modern exterior with beautiful sculptural trees.

Another difference — Uchiko will take reservations. (Uchi only does reservations for early and late seatings.) Uchiko's bar is much bigger, seating 50, with 200 more seats in the restaurant.

The evening we ate there for the preview, we were seated at a table with no window and not enough light for decent photos. So I got to put the camera away and focus on the incredible flavors coming my way. But I've included links below to Uchiko's web site, Tyson Cole's blog which includes lots of behind-the-scenes info and photos, and other articles and interviews about Uchiko.

On to the food. We had heard from friends who dined earlier in the week, that they had experienced some hiccups in timing on their food. Clearly, those issues had been ironed out because our food delivery was executed perfectly and our server was knowledgeable and his suggestions were spot on. That's why they do these soft openings, to work out the kinks. Our only problem was in ambition. We were way past full by the time we were presented with dessert menus. But we couldn't help ourselves, we had to try the intriguing new flavors.

Here's what we tried:
Lobster Gazpacho — chantrais melon gazpacho, chunks of lobster, and thai chili oil
Koviche — scallop, tomatillo, kala­mata powder, and black lime
Hotate — diver scallop with avocado in aioli
Cobia — with cured cucumber and fresh mint
Madai — japanese bream with shiso, Meyer lemon zest, and olive oil
Wagyu Momo — grilled wagyu beef with peaches, and thai chimichurri
Tempura Nasu — Japanese eggplant crisps with mitsuba and sweet chili sauce
Bacon Onigiri — crisp bits of fried pork belly with rice, banh mi pickles and bonito flakes
Ao Saba — grilled mackerel with huckleberries and pickled mushrooms
Grapefruit Sorbet — with sliced grapefruit, candied fennel, avocado mousse, and fennel pollen
Tobacco Cream — chocolate sorbet served over maple budino, with huckleberry sauce and scotch

The lobster gazpacho was perfection. The melon gazpacho with chunks of lobster and a little spike of chili was just the right palate refresher to start off the meal. We were scraping the bowl. I loved the kalamata powder in the Koviche sushi paired with scallop. I'd never had madai (Japanese bream) before. It was my favorite sushi of the night. I also love shiso and Meyer lemon and they enhanced the mild fish without overpowering it.

From the grill, the eggplant tempura was hot and absolutely perfectly seasoned. And I don't even like eggplant. I'm also not much of a fan of raw mackerel, but the Ao Saba from the grill menu turned me on to mackerel in a new way. It was rich and savory and luscious and we loved the zing of the huckleberries.

And last, but definitely, not least, the desserts. Uchi's acclaimed pastry chef, Philip Speer, is also producing Uchiko's desserts. These offerings held up to the high standard of the rest of our meal. We tried the grapefruit sorbet and the tobacco cream with chocolate sorbet. One word of caution: the tobacco cream is infused with tobacco and my husband (an ex-smoker) got a pretty big hit from this dessert. The maple budino, which serves as the base of this dessert, was one of the most amazing sweets I've ever tasted. I couldn't tear myself away from it. But I ordered the grapefruit sorbet which consisted of three generous scoops of grapefruit sorbet sitting on top of thin slices of grapefruit, candied fennel, avocado mousse and fennel pollen. I loved, loved, loved this combination of flavors. And like the gazpacho we started with, this was the perfect light, clean flavor to end the meal with. I have to say, this was the kind of meal where I danced a little in my seat with every new plate and flavor presented to us.

One of my favorite things about eating at Uchi has always been that I leave there feeling inspired by the craftsmanship that goes into every element of the restaurant, especially the food and flavor combinations presented. I'm really excited to have had that experience at Uchiko as well. I can't wait to go back and see what else they have on offer.

More info on Uchi:
• Uchi and Uchiko web site

• Uchiko's menu

• Behind-the-scenes info and photos on Uchiko at Tyson at Uchi blog.

Interview with Tyson Cole on KUT.

Interview with Uchiko executive chef Paul Qui from Austin 360.

What's in your fridge with Tyson Cole and Paul Qui from Relish Austin.

Eastside King

4200 North Lamar, Austin
phone reservations: 512.916.4808
serving dinner, 7 days
online reservations

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