When I traveled to Austin, Texas for the South by Southwest Interactive conference, I definitely had a lot of barbecue, but I also was fortunate to eat at Uchiko, the Japanese restaurant where Top Chef Season 9 winner, Paul Qui, is executive chef.
The restaurant, of course, was completely booked weeks before I arrived in Austin. I thought maybe I could score a seat in the bar during happy hour if I got there early enough. My conference roommate, Dominique, was game to try. While she was on the Uchiko website getting directions to the restaurant, on a whim, Dominique checked online availability of reservations that night. She found a 5:30 pm slot was open and booked it immediately. Score!
When we got to Uchiko, we decided to sit at the sushi bar to be in the middle of all of the action. We were at Uchiko early enough to take advantage of its “Sake Social” happy hour. We ordered three items from the happy hour menu.
The p-38 hand roll (Japanese yellowtail, avocado, yuzu, kosho and grilled negi) was everything you could want in sushi–incredibly fresh ingredients with a surprising variety of textures in one bite.
I loved the contrast of the crispy flash-fried kale with salmon in the yokai berry (Atlantic salmon, dinosaur kale, Asian pear, blueberry and yuzu).
The nasu nigiri (grilled Japanese eggplant, sumiso, goma shio) was hearty and satisfying.
Dominique and I were excited to try the kakiage (fried sweet potato fritter with chili sauce), which looked great. Unfortunately, it was disappointingly bland.
A discerning friend described Uchiko’s “Jar Jar Duck” as one of the best things he’s ever eaten, so we ordered that from the dinner menu. Named one of Food & Wine’s top-10 restaurant dishes of 2011, it involves duck done three ways (smoked, confited and cracklings), greens, and candied kumquats in a mason jar. Everything is infused with rosemary smoke, and then the jar is sealed and delivered to the lucky diner’s table.
It was indeed a cool visual and a unique experience to open the jar and have the smoke waft out, although it reminded me and Dominique a little too much of another kind of herbal smoke. No matter–the duck was delicious, and the kumquats were a surprise and delight. They brightened what could have been a very rich dish.
We also ordered the hotate midori (Japanese scallops, celery, black trumpets, verjus), which was my favorite thing we ate that night. The scallops were sweet and tender, but the revelation was the shaved celery salad on top of the scallops. I never knew celery could be so good!
Dominique and I ended the meal with two spectacular desserts, which perfectly captured Uchiko’s modern and playful approach to food.
The corn sorbet was actually six different preparations of corn. The sorbet and a sweet polenta sat on a bed of cornbread next to corn pudding. Then everything was garnished with crushed popcorn and dramatic corn tuiles. The translucent circles in the photo were lemon gel that somehow enhanced the corn flavor.
Like the corn dessert, Uchiko’s “fried milk” presents milk in a myriad of forms–sherbert, mousse, freeze dried(?) All of those are good, but the standout are the two pockets of fried milk, which made my Filipino heart skip a beat when I discovered that they were filled with sweetened condensed milk (an ingredient that appears in almost every Filipino dessert). Here’s a great Foodspotting pic that shows the fried milk in all their glory.