I was glued to the TV, yesterday, watching hurricane Sandy updates from my Austin hotel room (note to CNN producers: that was cruel how you kept that guy submerged in water during 100 MPH winds) while harassing Craig and Lolita (my cat) over the phone to make sure they were ok. They were, though via Twitter I knew many others weren’t. My instinct was to stay put, to suffer in solidarity, by way of Facebook updates and Instagram photos. At some point, though, I got hungry and wandered out of my hotel.
Austin’s not really a walking city, though after changing hotels to one downtown, I find that walking is way more doable. Knowing a little bit about South Congress and 1st Street and how they both traverse a body of water, I guided myself across a bridge and in the direction of a restaurant that’s often at the top of Austin “Best Of” lists. That restaurant is Uchi.
When I got there, I felt slightly intimidated (was I really going to eat by myself in such a fancy, special occasion restaurant?) and I almost made a crucial error when the hostess offered to seat me at a four-top by myself. I followed her there and just as she was setting the menus down I asked if I could wait for a seat at the bar. “It’ll be 20 minutes or so,” she said.
“I’ll wait,” I replied.
That decision was the key to one of my favorite eating experiences I’ve had in a long time. When I read Steven Shaw’s book Asian Dining Rules, one line really stuck with me: “There are two types of people eating sushi at a Japanese restaurant: those at the sushi bar, and the tourists.”
My sitting at the bar led to a direct connection with the chef who would oversee my entire meal. His name’s Matt and you can see him on the right, here, wearing glasses:
I told Matt that this was my first time to Uchi and that I wanted him to show off his favorite stuff (within reason, of course). He asked if I had any preferences or dislikes and I told him that I ate anything and everything (I left out the fact that I dislike beef jerky because that didn’t seem particularly relevant).
The meal started with a palate cleanser, Thai basil sorbet:
That one, cool, herb-infused, just-sweet-enough bite set the stage for everything to come.
Here’s the first dish, hamachi with orange oil:
What sets Uchi apart from other sushi restaurants is its willingness to pair the freshest, cleanest-tasting fish with flavors almost bold enough to overwhelm. They don’t overwhelm, though; they enhance. The orange oil and the ponzu enlivened the hamachi–made you pay attention more than you would if it was just fish on a plate.
Same for the next course of Madai (a kind of sea bream) with shiso vinaigrette, garlic and ginger blossoms:
That dish is all about knife work. Look at the shallots slivered on top; look at the herbs (basil?) sliced so thin, it could be plant hair. At the bar, I watched the sushi chefs slicing fish with the sharpest Japanese knives, guiding their blades by pressing down on the fish flesh just enough. The motions were smooth and effortless but the result of years of practice.
My favorite dish of the night came next: smoked cured hamachi with candied garlic, raisins, Asian pear, and Marcona almonds served on yucca chips.
If Uchi is staking a claim for itself in the world of sushi, this dish is the equivalent of digging a flagpole into the moon. Who would think to pair smoked, cured hamachi with raisins, Asian pair and Marcona almonds? Or to serve it on yucca chips? Even more, who would think to pair it with candied garlic? Matt explained the process for that: garlic is sliced extra thin on a mandoline slicer then blanched four times before being cooked in a sugar syrup. After that, it’s deep fried. The result is something really surprising; sweet in a way that feels entirely natural–garlic itself gets sweet when you roast it, so this is a different way of achieving that. And the way that it wakes up the fish is really extraordinary.
Uchi’s not just about breaking rules. When it sets about to make simple, straightforward sushi it does so with great expertise and authority. Observe: Aji (horse mackerel) and Shima Aji (striped jack) nigiri.
Each bite of fish was an opportunity to study its unique qualities–flavor, salinity, texture.
Same for these two bites: Shokko (baby amberjack) and Hagatsuo (baby bonito) nigiri.
“That’s where bonito flakes come from,” explained Matt when I tried the Hagatsuo. Bonito flakes are used to flavor broth with their pungent, fishy flavor; and indeed, that bite was the fishiest of the night, but wonderfully so–the way that sardines or anchovies are wonderfully fishy.
To be honest, I thought I was done here (“Are you full?” asked Matt and I nodded “yes”) but then a plate came out of the kitchen; presumably because Matt wanted me to try something off the non-fish menu. I’m glad this happened because this plate of fried pork jowls (yes, fried pork jowls) with fried Brussels sprouts on yuzu creme Fraiche was obnoxiously good.
I say obnoxiously good because it almost teetered on the line of “too decadent”; especially when Matt told me that the pork is cooked, first, sous vide in brown butter.
While eating my pork jowls, I continued watching the sushi-making process. My favorite tool to see put into practice was the blow torch, which I presume heats up the fish just enough (or caramelizes fish when necessary):
I also asked Matt about the different boxes on top of the sushi bar which the sushi chefs continued to pinch from as they flavored various bites of sushi:
From left to right: Marcona almonds, golden raisins, black sesame seeds, candied quinoa, house-smoked Maldon sea salt, black pepper, sea salt, Kosher salt. (I just did all that from memory. Be very impressed.)
After finishing the pork jowls, I waved a white flag but then Matt handed me this plate and said, “You have to have this before you go. I think it’s the best bite in all of Austin.” That’s foie gras nigiri:
Words can’t describe how good this was. Imagine the richest, most extravagant bite of protein in the world paired seamlessly with a clump of rice and you’ll have some idea. I ate it and literally said “Oh my God” out loud and the guy next to me scooted his chair a little bit away.
Actually that guy was pretty funny. After the waitress brought me this dessert (Matt said, “You can’t leave without trying one of our desserts”) of lemon gelato, beet glass, pistachios and a vinegar gastrique…
…a wonderful dessert that struck a lovely balance between the acidity of the lemon and the earthiness of the beet, a bill came and as I studied it, that same guy said: “Dude, you ate a lot.”
It was true.
And it felt especially inappropriate that I ate all that while Hurricane Sandy was attacking my friends and family on the east coast. All I can say in my own defense is that if you don’t live life to the fullest when you have the chance, when you’re not being pummeled by a hurricane or trapped without water or electricity, you’re wasting precious time and a precious opportunity to embrace life in the moment. I’m only in Austin because of the hurricane (I was supposed to fly back yesterday morning) so my dinner at Uchi was a chance, I suppose, to turn lemons into lemonade–or, in this case, lemon gelato with beets–and hopefully my experience is proof that even while horrible things are happening in the world, wonderful things are happening too. Uchi is the ying to Hurricane Sandy’s yang; a taste of the sublime in the face of the surreal.