Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Memorable Meal with a Memorable Woman

My relationship with AE has many wonderful aspects, and one that I really enjoy is that our anniversary falls on December 31st. That allows me to see the New Year not just as a time to buy a new calendar, but as an opportunity to reaffirm our love for each other. As part of that celebration, a few weeks after the New Year we decided to unleash our adventurous side by checking out a Japanese restaurant that had recently opened in north Austin.

The restaurant, Uchiko, is a spin-off of a top notch sushi place here in town, and describes itself as a modern interpre
tation of traditional Japanese farmhouse cuisine. That’s a style of food I’m unfamiliar with, so it promised to be a treat for the taste-buds, but the occasion poised a bit of a dilemma as well. Ideally, every meal offers dishes that complement and play off each other, so that the overall experience is greater than the sum of the parts. The classic steak-house dinner is a good example: the Caesar salad, martini, steak, potato, and dessert are good in isolation, but served up together, they border on the sublime.

Presumably, the same sort of complementary dining experience existed at Uchiko, but I was skeptical about our ability to discover it. Dishes like Truffled Congee- short grain japanese rice, preserved lemon, cured aji, crispy collard green, périgord black truffle-sounded like a real adventure for the taste-buds, but would it pair well, or at all, with the Usagi- rabbit, pumpernickel rye, saffron, breakfast radish? And what of the dessert special- peanut butter, pretzel, chocolate, beer…was that combination genius or just thrown together by an overworked chief trying something different for the sake of being different?

We arrived at Uchiko on a dark and rainy night with our dilemma still unresolved. The restaurant itself was bustling despite the weather and it took us a few minutes to be seated. Looking around, the décor was unsurprisingly minimalist and Asian. Our favorite part was a giant chalkboard covered with detailed pictures of all the specials. It was really well done and made me wonder how long it takes the artist to draw everything in every day.

After the short wait, we met our waiter Marko, a tall fellow with an intriguing
foreign accent that fascinated AE from the first word. “He sounds French, but he’s too tall” was her take. After lots of speculation, she finally broke down and asked where he was from. It turns out Marko is from Croatia, which met AE’s criteria for ‘interesting exotic tall foreigner.’ Guess I don’t have to feel guilty about flirting around at our next anniversary dinner…

It must be admitted that Marko is a pretty nice guy. We couldn’t decide on which type of sake to order, and so he
brought us samples of the two under consideration. In a very nice touch, he didn’t tell us which was which, so as to eliminate any lingering label or price bias our subconscious might be harboring. Best of all, Marko mentioned a tasting menu, which “offers an overview of all the very best that Uchiko has to offer.” That nicely solved our dilemma over trying to construct the ideal meal and we sat back, relaxed, and prepared for our taste-buds to be tantalized.

Things started off nicely with an amuse-bouche of strawberries and beets and the meal only got better from there. We feasted on things I’d never even heard of before, like beakfish, beltfish, and gruntfish. All ten courses were excellent and proportioned so that by the end we
were full but not stuffed. Some of the highlights for me included:

King Prawns with a Basil Seed sauce: These were enormous prawns that were dehydrated, concentrating their flavor and making them very crispy. Delicious.

Jar Jar Duck: this was duck in a kumquat sauce that arrived at our table sealed in a mason jar. When we opened it, a delicious rosemary smoke wafted out. I’ll have to get AE how to figure out how to duplicate this effect at home!

Grand Saline Sweet Potato: This one was lots of fun. A sweet potato was served with thinly sliced Spanish ham and a jalapeno marshmallow. I wasn’t sure it would work, but all the different elements-crispy salty ham, gooey spicy marshmallow, and creamy sweet potato-all came together beautifully.

Peanut Butter Pretzel Chocolate Beer Dessert: we ended up being served the special, and like the Sweet Potato, all the flavors came together. The beer was served as a sorbet, was rather mild, and contrasted nicely with the pretzel, which was crumbled across the plate along with a honey mustard sauce. The chocolate and peanut butter added a pleasant richness, and was a fantastic end to the meal.

We also had a comedic interlude during dinner. Our table was near the bar/waiting area, and towards the end of our meal, an amazingly stereotypical Texan cowboy ended up standing right behind AE. Complete with ten-gallon hat and alligator skin boots, the guy drawled on and on in a thick accent about how he’d never seen so many different wines on a single list or such crazy food. It was pretty funny, although I felt a little sorry for AE, who was about eight inches from his tirade.

All in all, despite the crazy cowboy, Uchiko was a real treat, with great food and great service. The tasting menu was a great way to experience the restaurant and just as we had hoped, turned a series of intriguing dishes into the sublime experience we were looking for. Best of all, Marko slipped AE a gift card to the restaurant as we left, so we may be headed back soon. This time, we may even try our hand at putting together our own series of complementary dishes!

For anyone who is interested in further information, here’s the URL for both Uchiko and its sister, Uchi:

AE has also kindly recreated the entire tasting menu below:

Amuse Bouche of Strawberry Beets
Winter Yellowtail sushi
Kusshi Oysters with Asian Grapefruit
Assorted Sushi-gruntfish, bluefish, and bluenose
Diver Scallops with uni, wild salmon roe, and truffles
King Prawns with basil seed and smoked butter
Jar Jar Duck with kumquat confit and rosemary smoke
Sushi-beaknose fish
Wagyu Ribeye with cauliflower and leek blossom
Grand Saline Sweet Potato with jamon Serrano, jalapeno marshmallow, and bourbon maple syrup
Dessert Special-peanut butter, pretzel, chocolate, beer

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