At Uchi, they know the drill
Checking in with the mothership as Tyson Cole’s crew gets ready for Uchiko
I love that movie ‘Crimson Tide.’ (Because I’m a guy, that’s why.)
Gene Hackman is the hard-case captain of a post-Cold War submarine. A fire breaks out in the galley, and in the middle of the chaos, he runs a missile drill. The idea being that anybody can hit the right buttons when everything’s A-OK. How about when hell’s breaking loose?
And so I visited Uchi in the middle of a drill, while the crew’s attentions were split between the mothership and Uchiko, the brand-new second location just four miles north set to launch Tuesday.
Chef-owner Tyson Cole’s people aced the exercise, toasting marshmallows over my hypothetical galley fire. Just another night for Austin’s most high-profile restaurant, a night that started with a surprise: a reservation. At a place where the unpredictable wait can be a deal-breaker.
From that happy start, a waitress walked and talked us through 31⁄ hours and a dozen
2 courses of Japanese-influenced food both inventive and familiar. We never worried about which dishes should come out when. She orchestrated the progression of temperatures, textures and flavors. She was right there to talk about freshwater vs. saltwater eel, to riff on our stupid jokes and to explain that ‘fish caramel’ is a sweetened, reduced fish sauce and not a science project gone sideways from pastry chef Philip Speer.
Under her care and in the middle of Uchi’s warm, amber space — accompanied by the occasional deep cheers of a half-dozen sushi chefs — the night hit at least three superlative notes: best service experience, best single dish and the highest food bill I’ve racked up as a critic, more than $115 per person before alcohol.
That best single dish — what Cole and chef de cuisine Paul Qui would call the Perfect Bite — is a bit of seared goose liver drizzled with fish caramel on a pearl of rice, the teleportational foie gras nigiri ($9). Time stops at first taste. The room goes dim except for a pool of light where your sensory nodes used to be, an interlude as ethereal as a Cyd Charisse dream sequence, as indecent as Lady GaGa’s voice mail. It’s a taste of clean iron and sweet, marbled umami with an eHarmony afterglow.
I’ve had pork belly ($18) two ways at Uchi, dressed with apple puree (Bacon Sen) and glazed like maple candy (Bacon Steakie). Both were blue-ribbon porkers, explosions of smoke and salt and char and fat. Elsewhere on land, a dish of Wagyu beef short rib ($28) brought together strawberrry and serrano pepper in neat, brunoised plots around a sculpture garden of monuments to sliced beef. Fennel, in caramelized slices and tiny fronds, evoked the five-spice exotica that helped launch the short-rib movement in the first place.
The Wagyu dish came from a page of daily specials, where the chefs play with the day’s best deliveries or follow their flights of fancy. The foie nigiri also came from there, along with desserts to suit the season.
Not many pastry chefs in this town can touch Speer’s regular dessert lineup, whether it’s a cool peanut butter semifreddo with an almost savory apple sorbet or a creamy panna cotta with a mango center and crisp coffee ‘soil’ in which we would all grow bigger, stronger and more alert. With daily specials that might combine pine sorbet, candied pine nut and orange mousse for the best kind of astringent overkill, he’s his own strongest competitor.
But the ‘specials’ page also produced a disappointing dish of pan-roasted Spanish lubina with pickled tomato and fried-egg emulsion. The small piece of sea bass was cooked well but aggressively salty and out of balance, however delicious those pickled tomatoes might have been, a washout magnified by the
The foie gras nigiri, a piece of seared goose liver with a reduced, sweetened fish sauce called fish caramel, was the highlight of a mostly impeccable meal.