I'm poking around a bowl of oily, charred Brussels sprouts with my chopsticks to see if maybe there's one that isn't sodden. There isn't. The menu calls them "crispy." They're not. It's a mess of a dish.
It's not unusual to see quality drop at a new restaurant after all the reviews are in. But the difference between dinner at Uchi last year -- when it earned a rare five-star review just out of the gate -- and more recent experiences is, quite frankly, stunning. Those cold, black, oil-soaked orbs will stay on our table for more than 20 minutes after we've given up on them.
When Uchi splashed onto the scene just 15 months ago, it quickly established itself as one of the most exciting restaurants in Dallas. With its brilliant, inspired modern Japanese cooking, smart dining room, outstanding sake list and thoughtful, polished service, it soon became a hot ticket.
The original chef de cuisine, Nilton "Junior" Borges, left the restaurant around the end of the year; Jeramie Robison -- who served as chef de cuisine at Uchi Austin in 2013, and more recently as executive chef at Shinsei -- stepped in to replace him in January.
Uchi is still one of the hottest restaurants in town, as I learned dining there four times since late May. On a recent Monday night, as our oleaginous orbs sat getting colder and colder, the dining room was getting fuller and noisier. By 7:50, it felt like a Saturday night.
But the food and the service at Uchi -- the second outpost of chef Tyson Cole's Austin original (the first is in Houston) -- have taken a dive.
First the service: One night we were rushed; on another dinner dragged on for three hours, with our two servers -- who seemed to be peeved at each other -- going AWOL for long stretches. Servers interrupted my guests, inserted themselves into our conversation, forgot dishes, made excuses, walked away midsentence to help another table, and constantly asked how our experience was going rather than using basic observational skills.
Not only is that not five-star service, it's not even four-star service. The exception was one evening at the sushi bar, where the service was flawless.
During Uchi's first six months, under chef Borges, the plates were conceived not just with sparkling originality and laser-sharp fidelity to the seasons. They also exhibited the kind of brilliance that comes when a chef knows that a few shavings of house-made umeboshi (pickled plum) or a drop of shiso oil can take a dish from delicious to spectacular. Execution was always spot-on.
Under Robison, the dishes are often compelling, though they rarely (if ever) thrill. There were lovely little briny-cucumbery First Encounter oysters from Massachusetts dressed judiciously with ginger granita, fish sauce and a touch of cilantro oil. A dish called "masu melon" -- sashimi-style slices of coral-pink ocean trout layered with cantaloupe and strewn with shaved country ham -- was a cool spin on prosciutto and melon.
A wonderful warm dish, tarabagani -- bites of fabulous king crab with compressed pear and brown butter sabayon, set off brightly with specks of pickled sea bean -- was the one that came closest to exciting.
Several, like a yellowtail collar I sampled in May, nicely grilled and done up with shaved, marinated fennel, orange supremes, mint and cilantro and a touch of fermented chile, could seem at home at Uchi's more casual upstairs sibling, Top Knot. I felt the same way about sasami yaki -- morsels of coconut-marinated young chicken on jasmine rice showered with toasted black and white sesame seeds, crunchy bits of chicken-skin furikake and cilantro leaves.
But there were quite a few disappointments. Day-boat scallops lolled in a gentle curry sauce with a texture like glue. Smoked Wagyu beef and burnt ends overwhelmed by a strong and one-note Japanese mustard sauce seemed like the first try for a dish that's a cute idea but not there yet. Those Wagyu slices were so tough, too big.
Shaved, underseasoned frozen foie gras -- rich and relentless -- looked like a bowl of moist, pink sawdust. Where were the Fuji apples and walnuts the menu promised? Hard to find them. This was like eating a big bowl of butter curls, a sad waste of foie.
By contrast, dinner at the sushi bar was delightful, thanks both to our excellent server and to consistently thoughtful sushi. Head sushi chef Matt Foreman has smart ideas about how to treat each fish, whether it's some of that wonderful king crab brushed lightly with tamari and lemon juice and wrapped in a gunkan-maki-style nori collar, or spectacular day-boat scallop dabbed with tangy yuzu kosho. Of course you can also order these at the table, but then you'll miss out if, say, one of the sushi chefs hands out little bites around the bar: grilled hamachi, rice and scallions wrapped halfway in crisp nori, the night I was there.
I'd no longer, however, call it the "hands-down" best sushi bar in town (as I described it in my first review). Lately madai (sea bream) sashimi was a little stringy; avocado sushi wasn't as lusciously ripe and flavorful as the first time I sampled it. In May, uni from Hokkaido had a dirty tidepool taste. But it's certainly one of the best sushi bars, a particularly special experience if you partake of one of the marvelous (and pricey) sakes on the list, such as Yuki No Bosha ($86 per bottle).
Two talented pastry chefs have passed through Uchi's kitchen in the 15 months since it opened. The second, Keith Cedotal, left in June, the same month a new general manager, Drew Smith, took charge of the dining room. The restaurant is without a pastry chef now, and it shows: Lemon gelato, covered in stringy white balsamic syrup, wasn't vaguely lemony, and the dots of golden beet purée with it were just odd. Hoping for something seasonal, fresh and light, I recently went for one of the signature terrarium-style desserts: lime cream with wild rice, coriander and fruit. Festooned with "dippin' dots" about as subtly flavored as Franken Berry, it was ruthlessly sweet, as awful a mess as the Brussels sprouts.
On a good night, Uchi can still be a lot of fun. But if you're expecting to be wowed, you may be disappointed.
Uchi (3 stars)
Price: $$$-$$$$ (cool tastings $12.50 to $18.50; hot tastings $13 to $19.50; specials $4.50 to $22; sushi $2.50 to $9.50 per piece; sashimi $14 to $26; dessert $9)
Service: With the exception of one server (at the sushi bar), who was outstanding, the service was not terribly professional.
Ambience: An attractive, contemporary dining room with comfortable booths, cool lighting and an inviting, comfortable sushi bar
Noise level: Can be very noisy, even on a Monday night, making conversation challenging.
Location: Uchi, 2817 Maple Ave., Dallas; 214-855-5454; uchirestaurants.com/dallas
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 to 11 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted; some tables are held for walk-ins
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Beer, wine and sake only. The well-chosen list of about 20 sakes includes some outstanding ones, such as Hanahato Densho ($60 for 500 ml) and Yuki No Bosha ($86 for 750 ml, $14 per glass), both junmai ginjos. A single page of wines includes some intriguing vintages from Alsace, Germany and Oregon among the whites. I wished for more choices among the light and seafood-friendly reds, then pounced on a 2014 Sattler Zweigelt from Austria with plenty of character for $61.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50