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Lately, it’s been hard to be a top chef. Restaurants rich in tradition have been criticized for being too boring, and restaurants on the cutting edge have been slammed for phasing out a la carte dining in favor of long-tasting menus that customers may not even want. Now more than ever, chefs are having difficulty designing menus that come across as ambitious but not overbearing. Yet in that space between conventional and excessive, Tyson Cole, a 2011 James Beard Award winner and head chef at Uchi, has managed to thrive.

At Uchi, the dining experience never feels subdued or pretentious. The exuberant sushi chefs and hip waitstaff exude a laid-back air and the feeling that the coming dinner is all about what the customer wants. Diners can order a la carte, try a tasting menu or talk to their waiters about personal preferences and enjoy their own personally tailored tasting menu. The flexibility is refreshing. Whereas most top-tier restaurants serve only tasting menus dictated by the chef, Uchi allows its patrons to choose between putting themselves in the chef’s hands and ordering for themselves. 

Whether ordered a la carte or prix fixe, Uchi’s food sets a remarkably high standard in consistency, quality and creativity. Cole’s dishes are full of subtle diversions from the traditional palette of Asian cooking. One won’t find anything as overt and bold as Pax Americana’s foie gras ice cream or Underbelly’s vinegar pie; instead, little twists like dotting the excellent yellowtail sashimi with smoky Marcona almonds and golden raisins elevate Uchi’s food to an equally exciting level. The hamachi and oyster also highlight the raw menu with unusual garnishes. The oysters are served on the half shell with sweet lemon ice and olive oil that wonderfully balance the oysters’ salinity. The hamachi with segmented oranges and yuzu feels more traditional, but instead of using Thai chilies or wasabi for spice, Cole uses jalapenos to give the dish an unusual herbal heat.

In the cooked portion of the menu, the preparations are just as good, but the focus shifts from Cole’s creative flavor pairings to his mastery of diverse textures. The lemon-chili brussel sprouts are nicely crisped on the outside without overcooking the satisfyingly chewy insides. The oak-grilled escolar is seared until crisp and decorated with bits of candied citrus. Cole even finds ways to improve on the texture of foie gras, a meat already known for its silky texture. The foie gras is infused with cream and paired with pickled endive and whole mustard, making the meat even creamier and adding an acidic, crunchy vegetable to offset the fatty and sweet liver. 

However, there are dishes that feel out of place on the menu. The Norwegian mackerel is full of pungent Nordic flavors that many may find too strong and clash with the lighter flavors of Uchi’s other plates. Likewise, the sea bream nigiri is an interesting attempt to incorporate a European fish into a Japanese tradition, but the result feels heavy and oily compared to Uchi’s more nuanced dishes.

The wine list is split evenly between sake, beer, red wine and white wine, and is well-suited to the seafood heavy menu. Each section is fairly diverse in its offerings, with high quality drinks available by the glass. The Trimbach pinot blanc and Fillaboa albariño, both elegant whites full of oaky floral notes, highlight the wine list. The sake menu is mostly made up of junmai ginjo sakes meant to be fresh and accessible. However, for sake enthusiasts, the Dreamy Clouds junmai nigori and Demon Slayer junmai daiginjo are excellent values that can be ordered by the glass.

The dessert menu is typical of Cole’s talents with both texture and flavor. The champagne ice with rosemary and white chocolate is intensely refreshing. For a warm dessert, the crunchy cornflake coating, warm filling and chocolate gateau on the fried milk plate all make for incredible comfort food. 

The experience at Uchi is among the best of Houston’s dining scene. Never overbearing or too fancy to be fun, Uchi has certainly earned its spot as the benchmark for Asian fusion in Houston.