Hype is one thing, but does Uchi ultimately deliver the goods? … Oh my, yes
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
I imagine every restaurant wishes it could generate the kind of pre-opening hype and post-opening lines that Uchi managed. From the moment local foodies heard that Dallas would be getting its own iteration of the Austin-based sushi phenomenon, tongues were both wagging and salivating. Those who had been to the Austin edition spoke lovingly about it to newbies, like wizened prospectors repeating legends of gold mines. Those who had never been themselves nonetheless wept in anticipation of getting an early reservation and being among the first to see and be seen there (because, you know, Dallas).
But lines can die down, and hype can dry up. The murmur was that Uchi was too expensive and trendy but not as skillful as, say, Nobu.
So, to summarize: It will be great … or a flash in the pan.
Whether Uchi will keep the crowds coming (I haven’t had any trouble getting a reservation, but I don’t try for parties of 4 at 7 p.m. on a weekend) is beyond my powers of clairvoyance, but as for the restaurant’s bona fides? Oh, my, yes. In some ways, the hype doesn’t do it justice.
I know that I’m probably setting people up for disappointment. On my last visit, we still had to wait 20 minutes after our reservation start time to be seated. And while our bill (which included a few adult beverages) wasn’t cheap, it wasn’t astronomical, either, and we walked away fully sated. Uchi ain’t cheap, it ain’t fast … but it’s totally worth what you go through.
Consider first the service, which has been exquisite. A friend of mine recently lamented that true fine-dining was all but dead in Dallas, and while Uchi isn’t white-tablecloth, it really does reach rarefied heights. The menus are stored in little trays under the tabletop, magically appearing in our server’s hand as if a hint of legerdemain adds to the magic of the dining experience (it does, kinda). Service is perky but not officious, attentive but not hovering. And the staff listens. Really listens.
On one visit, after our waitress inquired about our favorite dishes, another complimentary item appeared which combined several elements of the ones we gushed about. Gratis. “This is courtesy of the entire staff, kitchen and servers,” she said. An amuse bouche to start the meals is one thing; a complimentary glass of Chablis while your wait at the bar another; but to complete our meal with a customized dish sui generis? Well, that’s the difference between a good experience and a fantastic one.
It’s mostly been fantastic. The menu borders on Russian novel-length, with the “official” bill of fare supplemented with a lengthy list of daily specials. Meals are meant to be enjoyed family/tapas-style, with warm dishes, cold, sushi/sashimi, an omakase option (where the chef trots out his greatest hits) and rolls, salads, desserts. The menu was designed to be explored — as Shakespeare said of Cleopatra, Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / her infinite variety. So far, that’s been the case with Uchi.
A good lead-off is from the raw bar, with the in-season oysters. I tried the Wellfleet with a traditional cilantro mignonette on my first visit, but more recently the Peter’s Point, seasoned with mint, lime and a nigori granita ($4.5 for a pair), and it set a surprising tone for everything that followed.
A few of the smaller bites — age dofu (fried tofu with a side of hand-crafted dashi broth, $5); hama chili (salty-spicy baby yellowtail, $18) and the single-bite madai nigiri) — showed a sense of craftsmanship, but there were many other stars on the menu that eclipsed them.
Some people recoil slightly from the taste (really, the idea) of eel (unagi), but you need to be adventurous at a restaurant like this. The version here — a crunchy maki (roll), grilled and served with a schmear of avocado ($12) — showed the kitchen’s deftness with even the most prosaic of dishes. And it kept getting better.
Our server counseled us between versions of mackerel that were available, and convinced us that one — which was described as having a touch of truffle oil, usually a red flag for me — would meet our expectations. She was correct, and truffle imparted a slight headiness but did not overwhelm the fleshy, fishy essence of the fish. The salmon belly sashimi ($18), with shaved ginger root undergirding the lines of fatty fish and roe, was easily among our favorites.
But it’s not all about fish at Uchi. Believe me when I tell you the best chicken you will have this year will be the awesomeness that is the karaage (colorfully marinated balls of bird accented by pickles and cucumber, and at $10, a steal), and the bacon steakie (bacon slab, citrus, herbs in a symphonic balance, $19) will make you fall in love with the now-so-common pork belly all over again.
Asian restaurants typically don’t offer an extensive desserts selection, but one of the offerings here made up for every green-tea-ice-cream finale you’ve ever picked through. I liked the peanut semifreddo (with an apple-miso sorbet) well enough, but the lime cream ($9) is surely the most unexpected item on the menu: A terrarium bowl, inhabited by a citrusy custard, season fruit, colorfully expressive orbs of puffed rice and a garnish of edible flower. It’s rich and refreshing, like a bracing splash of spring water with a suggestion of lavender in the background.
The most notable thing about Uchi, though, is that the memory of it lingers long after the final bite has been digested. The warmth of the space, the seriousness of the chefs, the knowledgeable waitstaff and of course the execution of the peripatetic food. Some places will never live up to expectations, but Uchi exceeds them. It’s a rare confluence where the promise doesn’t do the reality justice. It deserves to be Dallas’ hottest place right now.
OVERALL RATING: 5 Stars
Uchi, 2817 Maple Ave. Cedar Springs Road. Open for dinner, 5–10 p.m. (11 p.m. weekends). 214-855-5454. UchiRestaurants.com/Dallas.
Uptown’s much-hyped sushi spot serves much more than just fish, including the best chicken in town and unexpected desserts like the lime cream, pictured.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 18, 2015.