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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Uchi Houston: Detail and Execution

Disclaimer: Aside from gratuity, thus far, I have not paid for the meals at Uchi Houston. I thank the staff of restaurant for their generosity. And apologize if I sound ungrateful.  

Foie gras nigiri

Prior to going to eat at the new restaurant Uchi in Houston, I heard quite a bit of hushed excitement - the media even covered the day by day construction of the building (in part because it is built on the site of a former restaurant of some historical significance). Now that it's opened, Uchi buzz is all over the blogosphere and twitterverse. 

I was there for the media preview. And a follow up dinner. 

For the record, I've never eaten at either Uchi or Uchiko in Austin, the original restaurants that earned Tyson Cole his James Beard award. And perhaps that lack of prior history colors much of my expectations and evaluation of the food in Uchi Houston. 

Yokai berry - a fruit/fish salad with dinosaur kale.
Discussing the food with other diners tends to bring up nostalgic recollections of how any one particular dish or "tasting" compared with its incarnation in Austin. I came away with the impression that most of the menu reproduced the Austin versions faithfully - in fact, few could tell what would have been created new for Houston. 

Cauliflower tempura
Let me get to the point: Uchi's greatest strengths lie in that impeccable attention to detail, and near flawless service. I sincerely believe that the staff wants only to see happy customers, and that is is very valuable to the restaurant dining experience. Most of the dishes I had were cleanly executed, with subtle flourishes that are the hallmark of precision. Save for a few items (and there were many we sampled, as the kitchen kept flinging complimentary dishes at us) all items were some of the best examples of those preparations available. 

The few klunkers:

For a Japanese-themed restaurant, Uchi Houston offers one kind of tea. "Green". Served with lemon wedges. It had a tiny bit more character than hot water. 
I didn't particularly care of the "Ham and Eggs" maki roll. The three sauces muddled the flavors, and the piment d'Espellete, a prominently premium spice, was lost in the mix. 

These Northeastern oysters were served with a dollop of lychee granita on top, and whole spices (fennel, pepper) in the ice underneath. Whole spices do not release their aroma in cold, so I was puzzled by the use. I suppose it was meant for a visual presentation, but the granita did nothing for the flavor, and the shucking left shards of shell in the specimen I ate. And I found myself preferring Gulf oysters. 

The promising:

Uchi uses a strong list of potential ingredients, and a deft hand at execution. The rice used was well cooked, and respect for it showed in separately presented koshi-hikari from sumeshi. The fish was never served ice cold, the rice came somewhat warm. Little details that are treasured in the appreciation of Japanese minimalism. 

I inquired about the bottarga found on each prep station, and found out that the restaurant makes its own bottarga. From sea urchin roe. Uni bottarga. But it's only used in one dish. 

Boquerones nigiri with shaved bottarga. I like oily fish like mackerel. And the bottarga was a nice salty umami tang to the whole thing.

Unlike many places, an order of nigiri at Uchi is one piece - essentially one bite. But we truly enjoyed this eggplant nigiri. Well charred, the creamy texture offsets the nuttiness from the sesame. 

 Gyutoro - wagyu short rib, slow cooked for 72 hours to resemble the texture of toro (tuna belly). The acidic soy citrus gelée complemented the fatty beef nicely. But at $10 a piece, it's actually more expensive than toro maguro. And I have to wonder - cooked for that long, did it matter if it was wagyu beef?
I did find that the kitchen tends to be formulaic in some dishes. For example, there's this fondness of mixing fruit and fish (see Yokai Berry above):

Tuna on compressed watermelon, with basil and cilantro. The dressing used thai chiles, which added an aggressive heat in the end - an effect which may be somewhat unpleasant for some. But I appreciated the use of large flake salt crystals that brought out the sweetness of the fruit, and the knife work that produced tuna slices which matched the watermelon in texture. 

Walu-walu. A large chunk of cooked escolar, atop a tangy dashi with preserved citrus. Escolar is a forgiving fish to cook with, and this was a pleasant enough dish, if rather mild. And it was a fairly big chunk of fish.

This sushi chef special is a salad of the gyutoro components, with seared fish, sea urchin and citrus segments. A symphony of indulgent flavors.

The other thing in use was a combination of fish sauce and caramel, a familiar enough flavor combination in to the Viet-influenced Houston palate.

Bacon and onions. Perhaps the best thing about this dish are the beautifully fried onions, which tasted like the most ephemeral and intense onion chips imaginable. The salty fish sauce caramel lying beneath was a good counterpoint to the fatty pork belly, and the grilled micro-scallions were an impressive touch.

The staff was proud of the underrated brussels sprouts preparation, which seem to have been glazed in fish sauce and lemons, and then dry heat cooked (fried perhaps) until the leaves get that crispy caramelization. I detected a somewhat lingering bitter aftertaste that was ameliorated by sprinkling on a little salt. 
When asked what I thought of the dishes, I responded honestly: I was impressed by the careful execution but thought the flavors where squarely in the safe zone. Inoffensive, classic, playful at most. This isn't necessarily wrong in the Japanese ethos, but I have a feeling that Uchi Houston is gingerly taking its very tentative first steps. Could the need to recapture the familiarity of the Austin Uchi experience be a guiding principle? After all, why mess around with a winning formula?

Jar Jar Duck: Duck, candied kumquats, nasturtiums, served in a jar filled with rosemary smoke. One of the more inventive dishes at Uchi, although at $30, costs a lot more than a whole Peking duck with the trimmings. 

Yet, there was something in the menu which I found particularly exciting, and I've reserved that for a separate posting.  

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