Uchi

Uchi
Photograph by Debora Smail

FIRST COMES THE ARCHED eyebrow. Then the significant pause. Then the question: “Well, how was it?” This is the reaction of my Austin friends when they hear I’ve been to the Houston location of Uchi, Texas’s restaurant of the moment. Yes, Austin is eaten up with curiosity and jealousy, poor thing. It’s like the beleaguered spouse who’s dealing with a partner’s very public extramarital affair. Houston, on the other hand, is the new hottie and loving every minute. But to answer the burning question—which I admit had consumed me too—the Houston edition of our beloved Uchi (and its equally lauded baby brother, Uchiko) is amazing, as well it should be, given that founding chef-owner Tyson Cole was named best chef in the Southwest by the James Beard Foundation in 2011 and Uchiko executive chef Paul Qui garnered the same prize this year.

In fact, the four-month-old Houston location—guided by chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards—could almost be the two Austin iterations. It mixes design elements from both (the flowery red wallpaper of Uchi and the rough wooden shingles of Uchiko). More importantly, the menu draws almost equally from those two honorable ancestors.

Since I was the only person in our foursome who wasn’t a newbie, I got to choose, so I started with a personal favorite: hama chile. Not only is it a compelling bite, but it showcases one of Cole’s signature sashimi taste combos: fish and fruit (sounds weird, tastes wonderful). In this case, the fish element is pristinely fresh yellowtail; the fruit is bright, juicy orange. Taking the whole thing to the next level are a drizzle of ponzu and a lightning-like zap of Thai chile.

We stayed on the sushi trail with “ham and eggs,” crispy panko-breaded fried pork belly tucked into a rice jacket and accompanied by dabs of sous-vide egg yolk. Then we switched to congee, a Japanese comfort food staple. The porridgelike dish starts with koshihikari, a pearly short-grain rice, but Uchi’s take has a surprising ingredient: tamago, a velvety version of the familiar omelet used in sushi. We took our chopsticks and stirred the rice and egg—along with lemon and truffle oil—into a luscious custard and marveled at the alchemy that can transform such simple ingredients into something so sublime.

Some ten dishes later, we were in a happy daze, but we had to make room for dessert. If you know the liqueur St-Germain, you know the taste of elderflowers. Here, fresh blossoms are steeped to make a fragrant cordial that then flavors a meringue, a cool granita, and a glistening Riesling-laced foam. A dollop of light buttermilk sabayon and a scoop of cantaloupe sorbet rounded out the pretty pastel plate.

The restaurant was emptying by the time we left, but as we made our way outside, I had a sudden pang of insecurity when I thought of all the dishes that we didn’t get to taste. If I hadn’t been going home to my own two Uchis in Austin the next day, I definitely would have been jealous. Beer, wine & sake. 904 Westheimer Rd (713-522-4808). Dinner Sun–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+

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