Fed Man 55: Uchi/Uchiko (3)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 3: Uchi/Uchiko
 Uchi: 801 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-916-4808, www.uchiaustin.com/uchi. Hours: Sun-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm.
 Uchiko: 4200 N. Lamar Blvd. 512-916-4808, www.uchiaustin.com/uchiko. Hours: Sun-Thu 5-10pm, Fri-Sat 5-11pm.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 12.30.12
This is not a tie. I'm ranking Uchi and Uchiko together because they're like rooms in the same Japanese house, separated by paper screens. They share ownership, suppliers, marketing, an architect, a phone number and a website. They lie just 4.2 miles apart from each other on the same street. They are tenants in that metaphorical house, which added a room for Uchi Houston in February, where space is being cleared for a Dallas wing and where a garage apartment is in the works for another Austin tenant. In a less flattering light, we’d call them a chain. But because we grew up in the same neighborhood, we’ll call them a family. And they’ll stand tall or fall — but mostly stand tall — together.
Uchi was the first, and it’ll turn 10 in the New Year, already wise beyond its years. The little building that once held Peter O’Brien’s Si Bon and the Skyline Grill before that has become an academy of sorts, led by Uchi chef/owner and James Beard Award winner Tyson Cole. Some of his best people have gone on to start respectable places of their own: Ek Timrerk (Spin Modern Thai), Mat Clouser (Swift’s Attic), Také Asazu (Komé) and of course Paul Qui, who opened Uchiko for Cole in 2010 as its executive chef. More on him later.
The house packs about 100 people into 2,700 square feet, under wicker cocoon lampshades, in shadow and beneath the unflinching worklights of the sushi bar. It’s tight and loud, with the entitled feel of a club where reservations are few and you fight for seats on a first-come, first-served basis. The staff knows you worked hard to be there, and they respond with cordial deprecation. “Tonight, I’m a supporting player in the movie of your life,” a waiter told my group.
The staff’s support means illuminating a menu whose mix of Japanese words and preparation terminology might leave you lost in translation. But we all understand cool and hot, and a dish of smoked yellowtail woven through fried yucca chips with pear, almonds and garlic brittle (machi cure, $18) was a cool entry point. So was a lean, clean slice of koshodai from Japan’s Fukuoka fish market and raw oysters with an icy citrus jolt. Philip Speer developed desserts for both restaurants, and the best at Uchi is white chocolate sorbet with a mango center resting in crisp coffee “soil,” a soil in which we would all grow bigger, stronger and more alert if only we could be planted in it.
But nothing rivaled the all-over glow of foie gras nigiri, the single best bite of food I had as the Statesman’s restaurant critic: seared goose liver drizzled with fish caramel on a pearl of rice, with a taste of clean iron and sweet, marbled umami.
(UCHI PHOTOS, ABOVE: Clockwise from top left: Foie gras nigiri, the sushi bar, machi cure with yellowtail and yucca chips, Uchi's patio waiting area, the main dining room, and the tempura-fried Shag Roll, center.)
Farther north on Lamar, the Uchi team carved Uchiko out of a former office building, using the textures of rough-sawn, charred, mismatched and intermingled wood favored by architect Michael Hsu. Paul Qui launched himself from this space, first as its executive chef, then as a contestant and eventual winner of “Top Chef” in 2011 and a James Beard Best Chef award winner in 2012. Now he’s focused on his East Side King street food quartet and other restaurant plans, and Uchiko has a new executive chef, Tim Dornon.
From Uchiko’s 200 seats — most of them available for reservations — the hot dishes shout loud enough to pierce the fog of raw, from sweet-fried Brussels sprouts to chicken karaage with a street-style fry to the spectacle of “Jar Jar Duck,” a swing-top mason jar layered with seared breast, leg confit and cracklings sealed tight with a shroud of rosemary smoke that lingers after its release like a half-remembered dream. On the raw side, shime saba nigiri is dressed with a truffle shaving perched in a little teardrop tomato half for a real balance between earth and sea.
On a visit to Uchiko this fall the day after I’d eaten my first perfectly ripe persimmon — as sweet as a sun-dried date — I saw persimmons by the sushi bar and a beautiful fish in the case, a fish that went from pearl to coral in almost engineered progression. Shima aji. The chef at my station improvised the two elements into a perfectly synchronized crudo. Speer is behind one of my favorite desserts in Austin, an Uchiko exclusive that marries tobacco cream with scotch glaze, chocolate sorbet and huckleberry gel for a kind of cigar-and-brandy after-dinner experience.
As collectively exuberant as Uchi and Uchiko can be, they share the daredevil luck of the draw, meaning that while the marquee stars are out tending their projects, your food is made by whomever’s in front of you at the sushi bar or on the hotline, and not everybody shares the master spark. That foie nigiri at Uchi — at $9 a pop, mind you — was burned to ashy acridness one night, perfect on another. My sushi chef at Uchi was going through the motions compared to his charismatic counterpart at Uchiko. Even at Uchiko, one of my sushi-bar attendants didn’t even really work there; it was a trial-by-fire audition.
And let’s talk about the soy sauce badge of shame: a shallow white dish of it brought with a sushi roll. Upon seeing it, two different servers admonished us not to use soy sauce. If you’re that uptight about it — and make no mistake, they are — then why bring it, and why put bottles of it on the table? It felt passive-aggressive, like a live-action version of the Sushi 101 section of Tyson Cole’s otherwise impressive Uchi Cookbook, in which he lays out all kinds of sins committed by sushi-bar customers:
 “The Japanese never serve soy sauce with sushi. You have to ask for it.” (Hypocrite, Exhibit A.)
 Ordering all your sushi at once (“You look like an a—hole.”)
 “Fried things aren’t sushi. Uchi offers some of those things because it’s what Americans want.” (Exhibit B.) We must want it bad, because while I sat at the sushi bar at Uchi one night, I watched my guy crank out Shag Rolls for the fryer like iPhones on an assembly line.
It’s your money. I say eat however it makes you happy. You’ll get so caught up in the adventure that I dare you to keep track of what you’re ordering at either place. You get pulled in by sushi starting around $3 per piece and rolls ranging from $8-$16. Even though the small plates of the hot and cold “tastings” start around $16 and climb into the mid-$20s, you’ll order a Missile Command array because each one sounds so good. Pretty soon, plates will show up that you’ve forgotten all about. Yes, you can spend $100 per person in a blink, but you can also tailor your experience to a smaller scale, with a few Social Hour cold sakes, a roll and tastings of hama chili or bacon steakie and keep it to more like $25, tip included.
I got to see Uchi through the eyes of a first-timer, a stranger sitting next to us the sushi bar. She was giddy over maguro with goat cheese and Fuji apples and the hot, crunchy mess of the Shag Roll. I shared bites of oily Spanish anchovy nigiri and seared eel just to watch her conquer a fear of unfamiliar seafood. Each one of those dishes is on the menus of both places, the foundations of the unifying Uchi/ko experience.
(UCHIKO PHOTOS, ABOVE: Clockwise from top left: The sushi bar, Jar Jar Duck, wood shingles on the exterior, shima aji with persimmon, the bar area, madai nigiri and shime saba nigiri. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants