I sometimes don’t get to restaurants right away out of professional courtesy, or sometimes out of some notion of editorial seriousness. Seldom, however, do I stay away because they can’t squeeze me in. That’s been the case at the new Houston outpost of Tyson Cole’s Uchi (with a side order of his Uchiko) in Austin. Last night, I finally made it into the new construction born of old at the storied corner of Montrose and Westheimer. The lot that held Felix’s Mexican Restaurant since 1937 can now boast of a bright, bold new life.
As some of you may know, I profiled Tyson Cole in my cookbook Lone Star Chefs, which meant eating at Uchi in Austin a few times and talking with the chef at some length. It was an epiphany, therefore, to see all his thoughts and philosophies poured out by a kitchen crew that on most nights works with him 165 miles away. Heck, I’ve known chefs who couldn’t run a second restaurant two doors down!
The three photos above come from the menu section called “cool tastings,” since virtually all uppercase letters are prohibited from entering this space. It’s a bit like a No-Fly-Zone. From top to bottom, the photos all show examples of Uchi’s and Uchiko’s favorites: the hama chili of baby yellowtail, the maguro sashimi of bigeye tuna with some wild slices of Fuji apple, and the machi cure of smoked baby yellowtail with yucca crisps and unexpected Marcona almonds. The latter dish you eat like machos, offered Joe, our sushi chef at the counter.
In keeping with Japanese culinary tradition, at least as translated into the “sushi restaurant” in America over the past two decades, there are plenty of spins on sushi and sashimi at Uchi – on the permanent menu, on the seasonal menu and even on the list of nightly specials. We greatly enjoyed the madai of Japanese sea bream as well as (more surprisingly, considering the fish’s stronger flavor and intrinsic oilyness) the shime saba of Norwegian mackerel.
At Houston’s Uchi, there’s no reason to think that we carnivores are out of luck. From the lengthy menu section called “hot tastings,” the chefs positioned in the kitchen behind the sushi chefs served up meat dishes like bacon tataki (another interesting spin on pork belly) along with – from the very springlike nightly specials – this wagyu zono. It’s beef short rib with an egg and an orange-kissed rendition of Vietnamese nuoc mam, a.k.a. fish sauce.
Since the cat’s usually away at the new Uchi, Cole has selected two talented head mice to live and cook according to his gospel – chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards and pastry chef Monica Glenn. Both have worked in one or both of the Austin mother ships. Here is one of Glenn’s best desserts from last night, lemon gelato with pistachios and white balsamic. The sweet finale is dramatically good – almost dramatically good as:
The thought of “fried milk” is enough to set any sweet tooth aflutter, without exactly knowing what that might turn out to be. What it does turn out to be is something like childhood’s lush vanilla pudding, encased in a crust of pulverized cornflakes and then deep fried. It’s an amazing triumph of chemistry or physics, or both. We sampled several additional desserts, but this one (like the new Uchi in Houston) is surely here to stay.