Just before the first episode of Top Chef Texas aired last November, my husband and I planned a weekend getaway to Austin with two other couples. As the season progressed and Austin’s Paul Qui stood out as a top contender, the realization grew that we would be able to dine at Uchiko, where Paul is executive-chef. As Paul’s skills became more evident with each episode, my anticipation of our meal at the Japanese restaurant grew exponentially. Paul Qui emerged the winner of Top Chef Texas. And a mere three weeks later our group descends on Uchiko, eager to taste his food.
Immediately upon being seated in view of the open kitchen, I scan the room for a glimpse of Paul. I try to refrain from asking the question which has probably become all too commonplace for the Uchiko staff. I can’t help myself. “Will Paul be here tonight?” The answer is no, he is out of town. Now I can relax and focus on our meal. The blow is softened by the fact that I will soon be attending an event at DC’s Asia Nine, featuring an Asian fusion cooking demonstration by Paul and fellow Top Chef contestant Edward Lee.
As a cuisine, Japanese food is somewhat foreign to me. I am not terribly adventurous when it comes to eating sushi, or knowledgeable about the various styles of cooking. Our affable server, Marco, asks if we are interested in a style of dining called omakase which means “trust me.” He selects dishes for us from a menu which includes sushi and sashimi, as well as small plates of cool tastings, hot tastings, and more. We inform him about any dining restrictions. If we want more of a particular dish, we ask. If we are full, we tell him. This requires a leap of faith, and my letting go of a desire for control. This is a big thing for me. I look at my husband and friends for affirmation that we are all on board for this experience. We are.
Two people in our party don’t eat meat or shellfish, one person doesn’t eat pork or fish, three of us (myself included of course) are pretty much up for anything. This doesn’t phase Marco at all. He assures us that he will satisfy our varying requirements. I can’t resist pointing to a few things on the menu that are musts. But then I get a glare from one of my friends because three seconds earlier I declared that I’m letting go. Wow, this is harder than I thought, but at the same time it is exhilarating.
What follows is a beautifully-paced procession of dishes. These are pictured here in no particular order. I hope to provide a glimpse into the stunning presentation and originality of the dishes we sampled on our omakase journey.
From the cool tastings side of the menu we have yokai berry: Atlantic salmon, dinosaur kale, Asian pear, and yuzu. Fairly early in the meal Marco notices that I am furiously trying to write notes in my phone to keep track of our dishes. He tells me that I can write directly on the menu and take it home. This is somewhat of a relief. Written beside this dish are three letters… OMG. I adore the crispy kale, sweet fruits, and insanely fresh fish.
I start assigning stars to the dishes I like best. After awhile I realize that every dish has stars next to it. I finally surrender to the meal, and don’t worry so much about my notes. I realize this isn’t great for my blog, but definitely enhances my experience. Sorry readers.
Maguro sashimi and goat cheese with fuji apple, pumpkin seed oil, and black pepper has me thinking. Who knew that you could add goat cheese to sashimi? What a brilliant pairing. The crisp apple crunch and the pumpkin seed oil enhance it further. Can I just say….wow.
Hama chili is yellowtail sashimi with sliced thai chili, and orange supremes. There is a common theme of fresh fish and herbs paired with fragrant oils and some type of exotic fruit that never gets old here. Bring it on and keep bringing it, Uchiko.
The next section of the menu is agemono, which means deep-fried. Think tempura. Dishes include tempura nasu: Japanese eggplant crisps with mitsuba and sweet chili sauce. Tempura onion rings is the dish that feels most familiar to us, although it is far from ordinary. We devour the spicy, crispy rings in mere seconds.
Brussels sprouts with lemon chili are crisp, tart, and spicy. We debate whether the ones we make at home are this good. Most of us think these are much better, but on this single dish we are not unanimous in finding it unique. This is the only time during the meal that this will be a subject for debate. Every other morsel of food is incomparable.
The hot tastings portion of the menu includes a hot rock on which you sear a portion of wagyu beef. This dish is great fun, although I assure the non-meat eaters that they are not missing out on much more than the novelty of the preparation. (don’t tell them otherwise, I just don’t want them to feel left out).
We are also served Dewberry Hills farm chicken with short grain sweet, rice, banana leaf, and Thai chili vinegar. I love the crunchy outside and the taste of the cool, tart vinegar.
One of my favorite dishes is jar, jar duck: Countryside Farms duck, candied kumquat, endive, and rosemary smoke. To open the lid is to release the smoke and a wonderful aroma. I dive into the jar without abandon.
We have one selection from the yakimono section of the menu, which features dishes that are grilled and skewered. Think yakitori. Our dish is pork jowl with brussels sprouts kimchee, preserved lemon creme fraiche, and romaine. Decadence on a plate.
There is no shortage of wagyu in this meal, much to the delight of the four meat-eaters, including wagyu shortrib with smoked grape, almond, and chive blossom. Do the calories count if the food just melts in your mouth?
If you are worrying that the pescaterians are going hungry, fear no more. There is a wonderfully delicate dish called madai from the sushi and sashimi portion of the menu. This is Japanese bream with shiso, meyer lemon zest, and olive oil. Sigh…
There is also sake toro: atlantic salmon belly, ginger, and tamari, which I forgo since I have had more than my fair share of food and am beginning to feel the effects.
This is followed by avofry: fried komaki roll, soy paper, and lemon miso.
There comes a point where three of us can go no further, and the others want more food. Marco is at the ready. I normally spurn the term “food coma,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe my state of being at this point. I truly don’t know what dishes come next, I only know that I don’t partake in the next couple of rounds of food.
I perk back up for dessert. We take back the reigns from Marco at this point, as a couple of the options from pastry chef Philip Speer have considerable appeal.
We opt for two desserts. The first: sweet corn sorbet with polenta custard, caramel salt, and lemon is unique and luscious. Even the skeptics, who balk at the sound of corn sorbet, must admit that this is a wonderful dessert.
I am conflicted when the last dish is placed before us. Can this meal be coming to an end? We conclude with fried milk with chocolate milk, toasted milk, and iced milk sherbet. We aren’t sure what to expect. The first bites result in simultaneous gasps of awe. We marvel at the contrasts of textures and flavors, which have been markedly consistent throughout the entire meal.
The realization begins to creep in. We have no idea how much money we have spent. We have had two bottles of moderately priced wine (Glatzer Gruner) and nineteen dishes. We agree that no matter what the cost we have had an amazing, revelatory, mind blowing meal at Uchiko. Marco appears with the check in hand. “How much do you think ?” he asks. Is he smiling? $600, $700, more… we wonder? The bill for six of us (after tax and before tip) is $402. We are happily stunned, knowing how much more we have spent on meals that are far less fulfilling and certainly nowhere near as entertaining. Marco, our all-knowing tour guide, has predicted it would end this way. We express our delight, rather than dismay, at the cost.
Two nights later I am out with a group of friends, including the two women who were with me at Uchiko. We glance at the menu with wonder. Can we just ask the server to bring us whatever he wishes? No chance. I have left my lack of inhibition in Austin, although it resurfaces briefly a few days later when I actually meet Paul Qui at Asia Nine in DC. He prepares and serves green curry mussels with spiced potato chips, and basil. I have never eaten mussels and never thought I would. But there’s something about Paul Qui’s cooking that makes me abandon my self-control and my preconceived notions. As it turns out, this isn’t a bad thing at all.
Uchiko, 4200 North Lamar, Austin, TX
Chef/Owner Tyson Cole, 2011 James Beard Foundation, Best Chef Southwest
GQ Magazine – Top new restaurant in America 2010
Executive Chef Paul Qui, winner Top Chef season 9