Culinary worlds collide at Uchiko with flair for unique flavor pairings

Vicky Ho

For groupies of Austin chef Tyson Cole and fans of Japanese fusion cuisine, the opening of Uchiko, owned by Cole and overseen by executive chef Paul Qui, has been eagerly anticipated — and was well worth the wait.

Many of the menu offerings echo those at its sister restaurant, Uchi, exhibiting the same irreverent flair for unlikely flavor combinations. Small plates dominate the menu, overshadowing the lackluster selection of sushi rolls. However, the extensive list of sushi nigiri and sashimi, each accompanied by a garnish or sauce that enhances the flavor of the fish, maintains the restaurant’s standing as a major contender in Austin’s sushi scene.

The Akami Te, one of Uchiko’s “cool tastings,” pairs fresh big eye tuna with cilantro and coriander atop a slice of juicy watermelon. The crispness of the watermelon contrasts nicely with the tender flesh of the tuna, and the sea salt sprinkled on top saves the dish from being bland while the cilantro rounds out the flavor in each bite.

The Yellowtail Ringo also combines raw fish with fruit, bringing together seared Australian amberjack with fennel and Fuji apple. Crisp apple chips give the dish an added texture and balance out the softness of the fish and the firmness of the apple slices.

As for hot dishes, the “sear it yourself” hot rock made popular at Uchi has a place on Uchiko’s menu, giving patrons the opportunity to sear Wagyu beef with kaffir lime at the table. The crunchy skin of the pork belly gives the Bacon Sen dish its bacon-y flavor, and the juiciness of the meat makes your mouth water for more. The fried apple puree and apple kimchee on the side provide a level of sweetness that the saltiness of the pork almost requires.

The chefs at Uchiko use top-quality fish for their sushi, and it shows. The sushi nigiri, or individual pieces of fish on small pads of rice, comes with added ingredients that make the flavor of each fish pop.

The buttery flesh of the sake toro, or salmon belly, was perfectly complemented by ginger and tamari, similar to soy sauce — typical sushi flavors. The hotate combines a raw diver scallop with a spicy aioli and a slice of avocado, and it pleasingly melts in your mouth. For more adventurous diners, the uni, or sea urchin, is creamy and fresh, with an almost egg-like consistency offset by basil and lemon.

The sushi rolls offered at Uchiko leave something to be desired, not in execution but, rather, in conceptualization. The Toledo roll, featuring big eye tuna, chorizo, Thai chili, avocado, grilled garlic and candied almond slices, was nearly a free-for-all of random ingredients despite using the same blend of sweet and salty flavors that made Uchi famous in Austin. The Umaso roll with amberjack and avocado is pretty standard fare, and the Oni Maguro roll, essentially a glorified spicy tuna roll, isn’t terribly inspired.

But executive pastry chef Philip Speer, celebrated for his work at Uchi, has outdone himself at Uchiko. The sweet corn sorbet with polenta custard and caramel salt is childishly satisfying; the caramel salt conjures up memories of shortbread cookies, and the polenta custard is sweet but not cloying. The tobacco cream dessert is rich, with a chocolate sorbet and huckleberry crisp that add depth to the dish.

The drink menu, in addition to wine, beer and sake, offers a small selection of specialty cocktails, the most notable of which is the Larkin: sparkling wine, grilled thyme and a slice of cured lemon. The thyme makes the wine more aromatic, and even though the drink becomes syrupy toward the bottom of the glass, that shouldn’t keep avid drinkers from ordering a second. Or a third.

The Pan Am, a mixture of sake, agua fresca, Granny Smith apple and rosemary, has a much milder flavor for those content to casually sip their drinks. The wines are tempting, too, as glasses are served with a hefty, but not unseemly, pour.

All in all, Uchiko is a pleasant experience for adventurous diners seeking Japanese fusion cuisine. Be prepared to raise your voice a little, though — a common complaint at Uchi and La Condesa, also designed by architect Michael Hsu, is the noise level of the dining room — and brace yourself for the check. Cocktails range from $10 to $12, small plates average out to about $17 each, sushi rolls are $11 on average and desserts are $9 each.

The best way to dine at Uchiko, though, is to save up and splurge. And if you’re fortunate enough to sit at the sushi bar, ask one of the sushi chefs for a recommendation. They’ll know what’s fresh, and who knows? You might come away with something unexpectedly delicious or, even better, off-menu.

WHAT: Uchiko
WHERE: 4200 N. Lamar Blvd.
WHEN: Sunday-Thursday, 5-10 p.m. ; Friday and Saturday, 5-11p.m.
WHAT TO GET: Akami Te, Bacon Sen and sweet corn sorbet