Before I launch into my lengthy description of this seriously stellar meal we had to round out 2009, may I first direct your attention to our brand new, Logan-designed banner? We are indeed certified bitchin', though not in Utah.
Ah, Uchi. Often lauded as one of the best restaurants in town, they've never been content to rest on their laurels. While other places in Austin go for just good enough, Uchi quietly plays around with some of the best ingredients available, combining elements of gastronomic alchemy with well practiced chefery techniques. They are nominally a Japanese restaurant but Tyson Cole (a Food and Wine Best New Chef 2005) has never let forced adherence to the cuisine of one place limit his ability to make interesting food.
We were really excited to accompany Crystal and Justin there for our last meal of 2009. And what a last meal it was.
I suppose, in the interests of full disclosure and all that, I should tell you that Justin works closely with the restaurant. Also, we've met the chef de cuisine, Paul Qui, on several occasions - most recently when we went to his new food trailer, introduced ourselves, and took a ton of pictures. And we were very obviously photographing our meal with Logan's SLR and his new 35mm prime lens, in a not at all incognito fashion (Logan may have been topless at one point).
Anyway. We had early reservations on NYE, and when we walked in, the intimate restaurant sparkled. Someone had had the lovely idea to blow up a bunch of balloons and launch them at the ceiling, which had the charming effect of making me feel like I was at the bottom of a glass of really nice champagne. Beautifully festive!
It took us just moments after sitting down to decide on the chef's 6-course New Year's omakase. The six dishes ended up being 9 (to which we gluttonously added one of Uchi's best-selling rolls that was too tempting to pass up.)
Very quickly, before even the sake we'd ordered had arrived, four little amuses-bouches appeared. A tiny slice of heirloom yellow tomato sat on a rich pool of sauce made from pureed fried egg and truffle, which had been strained to get that silky texture.
The heaviness of the little sample of sauce was cut by the fresh, cool, juicy tomato in a pairing I know Logan loved, but I found just a bit jarring. It was certainly pretty, though.
Next up, a dish that made me think of a Japanese-style crudo. Madai (black snapper) carpaccio, with shiso oil and san bai zu, or sweet vinegar sauce.
We were clearly instructed "no soy sauce", though I can't imagine what kind of crazy person would have dunked this delicately flavored, sweetly sour and herbal fish into something as strong as soy. Delicious.
Hotate kan kitsu came out next. The diver scallops were seared but still just about raw in the center, my favorite way to eat them.
More fancy pants eatin' after the jump.
It was with the accompaniments that things got interesting. Though the menu said salsify, the gentleman who dropped our food off told us that the scallops were topped with endive. We found both. The endive was pickled, and then grilled, which lent the dish both an agreeable smokiness and a slight hint of sour. The Thai chili gastrique was only a bit spicy, keeping everything in balance, and then we found out that what I'd thought were pickled slivered almonds were actually small pieces of dehydrated lime curd.
See what I mean about this place? Dehydrated lime curd? Also the scallops, though it's kind of hard to tell, had been sliced into bite-size pieces. Attention to detail people.
Next came something not on our little menu (trust me, we were following along way too closely!) - foie mousse with celery 3 ways.
Ai yai yai. So rich, yet so light. I don't really think of celery as a sweet vegetable, but here it easily took the place of the more common fruits you see served with foie gras. A celery root chip balanced atop the dish, which also contained sweet pickled celery stalk and fresh celery leaves. A strong coriander gastrique rounded things out, and a teeny peanut added to the crunch.
Next, another off-menu treat - winterpoint oysters.
The waitress, who was rocking it the entire evening by the way, told us that these had been breaded and cooked, then returned to the shell and topped with a risotto made with mussel broth. Tiny shrimp rested on top of the risotto and added to the dish's briny flavors. I loved the seafoody richness here.
Back to the menu with the omaaru ebi, lobster. This beautiful dish was served with Uchi's famous fish caramel (recipe here), pickled shiitakes, macadamia nut/langoustine crumbles, and scallop foam.
LOVE. I especially enjoyed the crumbles, which were made from ground langoustine shells. They stayed crunchy, even though they were topped with moist ingredients. Logan wasn't as big a fan, though, perhaps because he got a small chunk stuck in his teeth. (He's a terrible eater though.) I really liked the pickled mushrooms, too - the earthiness was just perfect with the lobster's sweetness.
The sweet, yet still light lobster was followed up by the richest, most unctuous tuna I've eaten in a long time. The toro nuta, was tuna belly with marcona almonds, dried cranberries, white soy, shredded scallion, and micro shiso.
The tuna had that mouth-coating creaminess you find in beautifully fatty fish, and the other aggressive ingredients really played this up. Not only was the dish quite nice in presentation, the flavors were balanced perfectly.
Yipes. How to top this? Paul then sent out another off-menu dish, made with some tongue he'd been tweaking to make tongue buns at East Side King.
It was hard to believe that this was tongue. It was so soft you barely needed a knife, and the deep beefiness left no doubt as to what quadruped you were eating. Paul served this with two sauces, a sansho pepper emulsion and a charred onion sauce thickened with agar agar. There were also small shards of candied garlic and shredded scallion, and the meat was perched delicately on some (of course) perfectly fried tempura eggplant.
I don't really even know what to say about this dish, except that at the time, I thought it might be the quintessential beef dish (but that was before we had the next course.) Ah, tongue - how can you be this good, but sometimes SO bad? The fried, the rich, the pepper, the onion, the garlic... the flavors made my eyes glaze over a bit.
Then the next dish came out. We were encouraged to eat this with our fingers, and even provided warm towels for cleaning up afterwards.
Wagyu yaki - oak grilled wagyu ribeye, green mango, sticky rice. Our waitress told us this was inspired by the flavors of Thai tom yum soup, and indeed, there was lots of spice and lemongrass here.
I loved the rustic serving. The beef was just barely on the right side of too fatty, and the sour mango helped to cut right through it. Fun to eat and really tasty - what more can you ask for?
Our last savory dish was something we ordered as we saw the end of the meal approaching. Uchi's Shag Roll is one of the most popular on the menu. Please don't look down your noses at us when I tell you it's a tempura fried roll - the frying here is judiciously done, and trust me, this roll has nothing in common with those overfried, enormous mostrosities you might think of when you hear tempura roll.
It's a Bond roll (avocado and sundried tomato in white soy paper) with the addition of salmon and a squid ink sumiso sauce which crosshatched the serving board. Fried lightly. This is something you should definitely try!
Lastly, dessert. I would tell you that we were so stuffed we almost couldn't eat it, but that would be a complete lie. All of the dishes you see above were servings for two people, except for the shag roll, which the four of us split - so really, it was pretty reasonable.
I was so glad I wasn't stuffed, because the dessert:
Dark chocolate sorbet with maple paper, a scotch tobacco custard, a maple budino, and huckleberry sauce. Schnikies! The scotch tobacco custard, which was in the form of a tube, was light and dainty, and the chocolate sorbet was rich and dark. Again, such a lovely dish, but with flavor to back it up! Pastry chef Philip Speer is obviously insane.
Jeez, looking back, I guess you might think I've gone a bit overboard with the effusiveness. But honestly, this is the best fine dining experience we've had in Austin. I think we're really lucky to have such a fun-loving restaurant here with the chops to back it up. I can't think of anywhere else I'd rather have gone on New Year's Eve. Thanks to everyone at Uchi for a wonderful experience.