gGood things take time, and in the case of award-winning chef Tyson Cole’s latest attempt, it took nearly 12 years to polish his modern Japanese restaurant Uchiko, before he unveiled it in Houston last week. Only the second iteration of Cole’s famed Uchi’s sister restaurant (the original is in Austin, Cole’s home base), Uchiko is a fiery counterpoint. And now it’s finally open in Houston.
It retains the fresh, clean flavors of Uchi, but adds robust meat dishes. Many carry the subtle flavors of wood smoke, while others contrast with the arctic char derived from cooking over a fire on a yakitori grill.
Hai Hospitality’s sleek new Houston Uchiko (Uchi, Loro) is a model for the restaurant’s future locations. The interior and exterior spaces were skillfully designed by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, who employed Texas craftsmen to create the warm space adorned with walnut and cedar wood. Artist Camille Warminton created the smoky blue wallpaper, inspired by a landscape photo of Naoshima, Japan, and painted the upstairs mural in the private dining room.
All light fixtures were conjured by Austinite Nathan Warbach, while vintage splashbacks evoke that prized Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. California native Shaun King (of Rick Moonen’s Momofuku, Sushi Samba, and RM Seafood, all in Las Vegas; and The Dawson in Chicago) serves as executive chef. King’s philosophy in the kitchen reflects what he calls ROH, or Return on Happiness. His mission is to ensure that not only are diners thrilled with their experience, but that his team front and back of the house are in the best possible place, mentally and physically, to make it happen.
Harsh fluorescent lights have been replaced with more beneficial full-spectrum lighting to provide employees with a dynamic environment. King also uses master yogis to teach breathwork before hectic shifts and even collaborated with a cobbler who worked for Nike and Adidas to design the first-ever athletic, kitchen-specific shoe.
The Uchiko menu
Uchiko’s menu is divided into sections such as Daily Specials and Toyosu Selection (named after Tokyo’s legendary market where the best fish is auctioned daily and flown to restaurants like Uchiko). There are three green dishes, a decadent caviar section, selections of agemono (Japanese fried dishes), hot tastings, cool tastings, makimono (sushi rolls), nigiri (hand-moulded sushi rice with a slice of fish on top) and sashimi (fresh raw fish and thinly sliced meat).
Daily specials can include Uchiko’s version of Rockefeller Oysters: roasted oyster with umami-boosting koji added to creamy spinach with crispy shallots ($22). Or try the traditional pumpkin-based tempura anointed with smoked brown butter and creme fraiche with a pulverized lime leaf ($18).
Treat yourself to the bluefin tuna otoro, which is extracted from inside the belly of the fish – the most desirable part as it is the fattiest. Each bite will melt in your mouth ($18). Or make it a flight of fish with the bluefin tuna akami, the popular and readily available loin ($20), and the bluefin tuna chutoro, a mix between the richness of otoro and the leanness of akam ( $16). Remember to consume each bite “fish side down” on your tongue for the most intense taste experience.
Nigiri and sashimi selections include toro sake (Scottish salmon belly, $5.50/$18.50); hamachi (Japanese amberjack, $6.50/$20); and shime saba (dried Norwegian mackerel, $6/$20)
For warm tastings, slow cooking, high heat and smoke come into play, creating bold and masculine flavors. For example, A Bar N Ranch Aged Beef with Charred Onions is seared four times and served with Poivre (fatty) liver and rich wedges of thick potatoes fried in A5 beef suet ($36).
“We experimented a lot with charring and juicing vegetables and using smoke to find a balance between bold and more delicate flavors,” says King. “The dry-aged duck is rich, delicate and smoky, and I think it’s representative of the evolution of the Uchiko concept.”
This dish features tender duck breast braised in dashi broth and served with homemade hoisin sauce and roasted cabbage ($29). The lobster spends time in the hearth oven wrapped in a banana leaf and moistened with Tom Kha (a coconut/chilli broth) with umeboshi (pickled sour/salty plums) and confit of mushrooms and dill. Trumpet Shallots ($39).
For those looking for an adventure on the plate, get ready for the omakase experience with a 10-course chef’s tasting menu and five-course signature tasting menus available (market price).
The dessert menu, created by Executive Pastry Chef Ariana Quant, blends French techniques with Asian ingredients and even plays with the subtle smoke that lingers throughout the menu. Quant’s nifty version of fireside s’mores is a fun treat where the marshmallow-topped rich dark chocolate log is seized table-side with a piece of red-hot compressed binchotan wood ($12).
Houston’s Uchiko is open for dinner from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. He is located at Post Oak Place, 1801 Post Oak Boulevard, (713) 597-5464, UchikoHouston.com.