Uchiko: Showcasing Contemporary Japanese Cuisine in Austin

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My interest in chef Tyson Cole grew exponentially after reading his profile in the Southern Food issue of the Oxford American. Writer Brett Anderson described him as “Sushi’s Great White Hope,” which is kind of a strange statement, but drew my eye nonetheless. What mattered to me wasn’t that Cole is white, but that he was evidently making knockout Japanese food in a town best known for barbecue and down home comfort food. He could also theoretically offer an interesting culinary alternative that might actually stray from the primarily-traditional sushi that predominates in Los Angeles. Uchi, Cole’s flagship restaurant on South Lamar, initially generated national coverage, and Uchi’s still on my radar, but for my most recent trip to Austin, it was the larger, more casual Uchiko that pulled me to the north side of town.

Restaurant Austin
Uchiko opened in June 2010 in a new multifaceted development that also houses a contemporary coffeehouse, barber shop and taqueria. The interior features two rooms, including a bar and lounge that faces North Lamar Boulevard. We sat in the main wood-rich dining room, which featured a collage of stained rolled paper looks like cross sections of tree. The space also housed basket lanterns, lamps that looked like molecular models and a backlit sushi bar.

Cocktail Austin
Tyson Cole helped develop a cocktail for his daughter, Larkin ($10), which appeared in a champagne flute and featured sparkling Prosecco, grilled thyme and salt cured lemon, creating a savory effect. They also have a wide selection of sake, by the glass, bottle and more.

My visit was with food centric local Jane King, who worked for years at Central Market and now fights to improve school lunch. She grew up part-time in Japan and ordered a glass of unfiltered sake, which arrived overflowing. Generosity is culturally encouraged in that country.

Japanese Food Austin
Our Amuse Bouche consisted of sweet potato chips set in sweet potato puree, dusted with espelette.

Uchiko has several menu categories, including “Greens,” “Cool Tastings,” “Hot Tastings,” “Agemono,” “Yakimono” and a separate page of Daily Specials. Considering there were only two of us, and we were coming from a semi-meal at Odd Duck, we had to choose wisely.

Japanese Food Austin
Our only sushi selection was Buri ($7), firm winter yellowtail dressed with crunchy candied garlic, tart green apple shavings and mildly spicy Thai chile on well-treated rice.

Japanese Food Austin
It was probably unnecessary to top the tiny, delicate Kusshi Oyster ($4) with strawberry Thai basil sorbet. The mignonette-like Thai chile vinegar and cilantro stems would have been enough.

Japanese Food Austin
Ao Saba ($12) featured an oily, pungent and satisfying fillet of grilled Norwegian Mackerel yakimono with huckleberry compote, juniper, onion and incredible pickled bluefoot mushrooms that were bursting with umami. The garnish: dried borage blossoms.

Japanese Food Austin
Karaage ($8) was a highlight for me, featuring chicken that Cole and his crew marinated in sweet chile for three days, coated in corn starch and fried to a crisp. They drizzled the bird with more sweet chile sauce, including sansho pepper, and plated with seasonal pickled vegetables – carrots, cucumber, golden beets and fennel flowers – that played nicely with the spice. In general, Chef Cole seems to do a good job of balancing oily or rich proteins with the acid punch of pickles.

They also had a lot of other interesting options that our limited appetites wouldn’t allow, including Jar Jar Duck, a jar of Countryside Farms duck with kumquat confit and rosemary “smoke,” and Dirt and Berries, Poteet strawberries with pumpernickel, caraway gastrique and foie mousse.

Dessert Austin
Progressive pastry chef Philip Speer created maple budino with crunchy pecans candied in dark brown sugar and accented with sea salt. The busy plate also hosted tangy berry compote, a berry tuile and tobacco cream that had been strained of tobacco leaf and coated in springy scotch gelée, featuring a faint single malt Islay. This particular Kaleidoscope of flavors and textures was more interesting in theory, as the flavors didn’t quite coalesce.

It was interesting and fun to finally try some of Tyson Cole’s food, but since my appetite wasn’t at its peak, this clearly calls for a return trip to Uchiko to enjoy more of the menu, and to get a clearer understanding of his cooking (or “un-cooking,” to quote raw food chef Ani Phyo). My next visit to Austin pretty much has to include a full-force meal at Uchi as well. Looking forward to it.


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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