When an awesome restaurant spawns another — and another and another — chances are slim that any of the offspring will impress as much as the original.
And so it is remarkable that Dallas’ new Uchi, the spring chicklet of Tyson Cole’s 12-year-old Uchi in Austin, is not merely a pretty good outpost, but a brilliant destination in its own right.
You can see and taste it in a cool dish called akami te: cubes of compressed watermelon, each topped with a slice of bigeye tuna, bathed in a light fish sauce and perfumed with Thai basil, mint and cilantro. Gorgeous as it is delicious, it perfectly captures summer — and expresses Uchi’s modern Japanese aesthetic. So does a quiveringly perfect fillet of warm halibut flanked by fluffy pools of savory sabayon and set off by a bit of pickled sea bean relish, tender green peanuts with softly vegetal flavor, arugula leaves and shaved radish. Did a fairy fly over with the finishing touch — tiny pink-lavender radish blossoms?
It’s an incredibly ambitious enterprise, to boot. While Austin’s relatively laid-back, intimate Uchi seats 100, the Dallas Uchi serves 172 at a time in its bustling Maple Avenue dining room, in a stand-alone building that once was a bank. With its poppy-red wallpaper, pecan wood floors, marble sushi bar and futuristic ceramic light fixtures, it echoes the look of the original, but skews jazzier — more Dallas, more noisy, more see-and-be-seen spacious. The outsized pinwheel string art on a back wall (looks like Spirograph!) reads just right as a backdrop for the crowd, svelte women in skimpy dresses and 5-inch heels or glittery flip-flops, polished dudes in smooth cotton.
Cole, the chef-owner mastermind, has been widely recognized on the national stage over the years — he was one of Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs in 2005 and won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2011. So many a food-loving Dallasite will have tasted, at one of his two Austin restaurants (Uchi or its sequel Uchiko), what he’s all about. The Dallas menu features many of his signature sushi items and dishes, such as machi cure, his elegant Asian spin on nachos. Pick up one of the thin yuca crisps layered artfully on the plate and with it comes a voluptuous slab of lightly smoked yellowtail piled with other flavors and textures that dance on the palate: Asian pear, Marcona almond, slivered negi (spring onion) and a bit of tobiko (flying fish roe) that adds delicate pop. With a sake from beverage director Chris Melton’s superb list — maybe a Wakatake Onikoroshi “Demon Slayer” junmai daiginjo — it’s wonderful.
Nevertheless, the brilliance on the plates here doesn’t reflect only Cole’s genius; it’s a collaboration between Cole and his chef de cuisine, Nilton “Junior” Borges, a Brazilian native who comes to Dallas via New York, where he was executive chef at Amali. While it clearly expresses the Uchi aesthetic, the Dallas menu is fresh, dynamic and ambitious, with Borges’ considerable talent deliciously on display.
I like to focus on the list of specials clipped to the front of the menu each evening, which leads off with “Tsukiji selections” of sushi and sashimi (Tsukiji is Tokyo’s famous fish market). That’s where I found the halibut and akami te, as well as a spectacular salad of plums and lushly flavored tomatoes from Comeback Creek Farm mingled with shavings of house-made umeboshi (pickled plum), tiny Thai basil leaves, and a few rich, beefy slices of A5 lardo — rich, beefy cured backfat culled from A5 Wagyu, the highest-quality of Japan’s famous beef.
If you feel like it, you can approach Uchi as a place for sushi; if that’s the case, it’s most fun to do so from a perch at the sushi bar, presided over by head sushi chef Matt Foreman. Hands down, Uchi’s is the best sushi in town. Nigiri here is perfectly proportioned and appropriately sauced, with polished rice seasoned with the right vinegar tang. It’s the only sushi spot where I’ve spent entire evenings without dipping a single piece of nigiri in shoyu (soy sauce).
The excellent house-made shoyu is best enjoyed with sashimi, maybe coral-colored Tasmanian ocean trout that’s wonderful with a bite of the perfumy shiso that garnishes it. Or go for a sashimi-like cool tasting of madai (Japanese sea bream) carpaccio dressed with slivers of lime zest, a drizzle of olive oil, a few drops of shiso oil and tiny rings of myoga, shallot-like Japanese ginger buds.
Unlike at most sushi bars, an order of nigiri at Uchi is one piece; if your wallet permits, that means more things to try. (Be careful: They add up to a scary bill quickly!) Lately I was wowed by the soft, cool satin mouth feel and gentle oceanic flavor of dayboat scallop nigiri, enhanced by a dot of yuzu kosho and a few flakes of Maldon salt.
Unconventional sushi items are outstanding here, too — even things that sounded too simple to be worth ordering, like grilled eggplant. Painted with lemon miso and sprinkled with gomo shio (sesame salt), the eggplant melted delectably into the rice. Avocado nigiri, carefully sauced with tamari and dotted with yuzu kosho, somehow tasted like a rare and expensive delicacy. If you’re a foie gras lover, do try the sushi version, gorgeously seared, painted with fish caramel, garnished with candied quinoa and negi and banded with nori (seaweed). Wow!
Makimono — sushi rolls — are uncommonly terrific, and absolutely original. Rather than the traditional nori, the wrapper for a shrimp tempura roll — filled with lettuce, herbs and cucumber, like a Vietnamese summer roll — is stretchy rice paper; each round comes decorated with a frozen slice of red grape and sliver of pickled shallot and it’s served with nuoc mam, Vietnam’s fermented fish dipping sauce. I also loved one called zero sen, yellowtail, rice, avocado, tobiko, shallot and cilantro wrapped in nori; and a special, a nori-wrapped roll with tempura soft-shell crab, coconut and lime, each slice topped with milky-sweet kernels of summer corn.
Otherwise you can toss a sushi item or three into the mix with dishes from the menu, at a table or the sushi bar. The servers are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the menu, and they'll send things out in an order that makes sense.
The warm dishes excite as much as the cool ones. There’s a soulful duck nabe, a bowl of rice studded with tender morsels of cured and confited duck leg, kale and three kinds of mushrooms, topped with an egg yolk that gets stirred into it tableside; the egg cooks a bit in the hot sauce. Gyotoro, flavorful cubes of short rib on a silky spinach purée, were arranged with rectangles of green apple sliced to look like pages of a book, with Thai basil inserted between a few: gorgeous, delicious and technically amazing.
Pastry chef Andrew Lewis’ desserts are no less stunning than the rest, particularly a terrarium-like bowl filled with lime cream and decorated with tiny balls of cantaloupe and honeydew, lovely edible flowers, wands of watermelon and puffed rice. It’s an incredible play of flavors and texture. His frozen desserts — sorbets in flavors like tangerine or roasted plum, olive gelato or peanut butter semifreddo — are killer.
What isn’t killer is the 10-course omakase: Ordering it was the only disappointment I had in five visits. Not because the food wasn’t wonderful — it was. But there was nothing on it that I couldn’t have ordered from the menu, and oddly, there’s no price break: The $90 I ponied up is what I would have paid had I ordered all those dishes a la carte.
Not surprisingly, tables get booked well in advance; happily for last-minute types, nearly half of the seats are reserved for walk-ins. And yes, waits can be long. Relax on the patio or at the bar with a box of cool sake or a glass of rosé. Likely as not, a server will come around with hors d’oeuvres. And try to chill, even if it’s 105 degrees outside. You’re in for one spectacular experience.
Follow Leslie Brenner on Twitter at @lesbren.
Uchi (5 stars)
Price: $$$$ (cool tastings $12 to $18.50; hot tastings $7 to $26; nigiri sushi $2.50 to $9.50 per piece; makimono rolls $10 to $16; desserts $3 to $9)
Service: Attentive, professional, passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the menu
Ambience: A stylish, modern dining room with Uchi's signature poppy-red wallpaper, futuristic lighting and a sushi bar set in the center
Noise level: Can be extremely noisy, and conversing can be a challenge - probably easiest between two diners seated together at the sushi bar.
Location: 2817 Maple Ave., Dallas; 214-855-5454; uchirestaurants.com/dallas
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted, with nearly half of the tables held for walk-ins. Waits can be long.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Wine, beer and sake only. Chris Melton's two-page drink list includes a wide selection of well-chosen, well-described sakes, 10 of which are available by the glass as well as by the bottle. There's also plenty to discover (including some intriguing choices under $60) on the list of about 65 wines, nearly half of which are available by the glass.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor