At Uchi, they know the drill

Check­ing in with the moth­er­ship as Tyson Cole’s crew gets ready for Uchiko

Austin American-Statesman - - FOOD & DRINK - By Mike Sut­ter Amer­i­can-States­man Res­tau­rant Critic

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

Mike Sut­ter pho­tos

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.

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