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September 16, 2006

Uchi, 801 S Lamar Blvd

Ten years ago, if you had suggested that two of the best restaurants in Austin would be south of the river, you would have been laughed right off your stool at the Filling Station. Here we are, though, with the twin stars of Vespaio and Uchi anchoring a vibrant south Austin dining scene that almost - though not quite - makes those annoying 78704 stickers appear justifiable. The area just south of the river - "South Austin" is something of a misnomer, given the that the city sprawled well down past Ben White many years ago - has been full of itself for a long time, and it now has first-class restaurants, sky-high property taxes and exhorbitant rent prices to show for it. Raise your glass of sake to the sweet smell of success.

Uchi occupies the house abandoned many years ago by Si Bon, and if parking problems are any measure of success, Uchi has a lot going for it. Uchi is fortunate enough to be surrounded by plenty of day businesses for parking lot overflow, so don't be surprised when you see the auto repair shop two doors down full of brand new BMWs and Mercedes - as down-to-earth as the south Austin dining scene may still be, it certainly pulls in the monied crowds in starched shirts as well any downtown steakhouse.

Speaking of money, those of you with scant disposable income will want to check the available balance on your credit card before countenancing a serious meal at Uchi. The tasting menu for two is $150 before beverages, and our last trip topped $320 with tip. If you order carefully from the menu and avoid specials, you can eat reasonably here, but I recommend that you call the bank and ask for a credit line increase, because eating well at Uchi is a singular experience that compares to fine meals in any major culinary city. If the restaurant continues to fine-tune - which it emphatically needs to do in certain areas - Uchi has the potential to become an establishment of national renown.

Uchi's tasting menu (omakase) is a wonder to behold, a bold attempt at combining the simplicity and pure ingredients of Japanese seafood with the artistic food science and experimentation of an El Bulli or WD50. The result is somewhat of a mixed bag, but the successes handily outnumber the disappointments, and nearly everything will challenge or amuse you in some way. This kind of dining requires a knowledgeable staff with an enthusiasm for the food, and our server satisfied on both counts.

The fish highlights of the 10-course tasting menu included beautiful sashimi with tangerine-infused oil; Spanish mackerel with the bones and head fried (both were delicious); Japanese snapper cheek that smelled extremely intense but tasted wonderful (some of it very strong); seared scallops on a Japanese sweet potato puree served with fried sardines, which were crunchy and superb; and a few skewers of baby octopus (which we ordered in addition to the tasting menu) that were accompanied with salt, pepper, and chili for dipping. I can't recommend the octopus strongly enough; unless you have a problem with the texture (if, for instance, you really don't like squid), you should absolutely pop (sorry) for an order of these.

All the fish was uniformly excellent; fresh, firm and perfectly cut. Most of the raw fish dishes involved unique herbs or edible plants which, when combined with light sauces or oils, added texture and vibrancy on the palate. The tasting menu throws a couple of curve balls with rolls; the first was a chicken "confit" roll, surrounded by sushi rice then rice paper, served with cilantro and a rich dipping sauce. It proved to be a clever fusion of Japanese and Vietnamese flavors, and a pleasant break from the seafood. The second roll, fried and served with a heavy, soy-based dipping sauce, was less memorable.

One of the undisputed stars of the evening was the quail, which came pan-roasted and plated with brandy-marinated cherries, fresh honeycomb and tiny corn-plant shoots. This is one of those "get it all in your mouth at once" dished that is worth the effort of assembling on your fork. Rather than a novel taste "explosion," the sensation was one of uniquely harmonized flavors and textures, with a lingering complexity that transformed its constituent ingredients into something wholly new. Like great wine, it developed slowly on the palate, its labyrinthine pathways of taste giving way to a sweet, smoky oneness.

The only real disappointment of the evening was the foie gras, an experiment in sweet richness that sounded questionable on paper and turned out even worse in practice. A cube of brioche came topped with foie gras, which was doused with a vanilla-saffron mixture that was somewhere between a foam and a sauce; beside this on the plate were a sweet sauce and bubbles of fresh cocoa. An interesting dessert lurks somewhere in all this, but as a foie gras dish, it was an unmitigated failure. The foie gras could have been pork tenderloin or even tofu; it was so overwhelmed by the rest of the flavors that you could barely detect its texture or flavor. The novelty and playful experimentation of the dish was not lost on us, but the final result was a dish that needs to be taken back to the drawing board.

Dessert of sorbet, poached pear and parsnip cake was refreshing and laid in out in a humorous nod to sashimi plating. We enjoyed very good dry sake, and the staff is quite knowledgable on their sakes, although I heard the same recommendations made to quite a few diners around us. Good sake can quickly break the bank here, but no more so than a reasonable bottle of wine.

Uchi is doing something great and appears to be on its way to greatness. Like any restaurant that relies substantially on novelty and experimentation, there is always a risk of becoming formulaic and predictable, but Uchi largely avoids falling into that trap. A strong foundation of superb ingredients and innovative preparation combined with a sense of experimentation and even a touch of humor has quickly made Uchi one of the best restaurants in Austin and a mandatory destination for anyone who is serious about food. While you won't find intimacy or hushed, formal service here, you will encounter some of the most exceptional dining in Texas.

Highly Recommended

Uchi in Austin

Posted by brentbuford at 04:34 PM | Comments (0)

September 07, 2006

Asti Trattoria, 408C E 43rd St

As Emmett Fox has shifted his gaze to Mediterranean cuisine at Fino, Asti has settled in to its role as a neighborhood stalwart of solid - if not spectacularly interesting - Italian fare. I've had a few disappointing dishes at Asti over the years - including a thick, rubber band-textured homemade papardelle that will linger in memory forever - but the overall experience of Asti is one of good quality food and familiarity. The staff is attentive and knowledgeable and the wine list has grown enough to potentially embarrass some of Asti's upscale competition.

Asti hasn't lost the spirit of a neighborhood joint; you can still eat cheaply and well here if you're selective. Pizzas and pastas are competent or above average, but if you stick with the staples you'll miss near-classics like the Buddy's chicken with roasted vegetables, a hearty, solid entree that everyone should try once. Once you do sample it, try it at home as well - it's a model of simplicity.

Sometimes Asti cranks up the hearty meter a notch too far, as in the seafood risotto, which came inundated in a tomato sauce that not only overwhelmed the seafood (which is a shame, as the squid was perfect) but seemed to relegate the rice itself to an afterthought. A side of sauteed spinach with garlic, which we picked with the intention of balancing out the risotto with something intense, cowered in the corner, clearly embarrassed.

Conversely, a carrot canneloni was thin and airy, almost to the point of being inconsequential. A special starter proved the most interesting dish of the night - an impossibly light celeriac cake came with sauteed fennel, creating an almost perfectly archetypal "summer" flavor. I don't know if this is going to be offered regularly, but get it when you can.

Standards like white bean dip continue to be solid choices, and my experience with the soups at Asti has been mostly positive, including a memorable cabbage and proscuitto soup that, again, evinced the flavors of its season flawlessly.

In fact, eating seasonally from the specials or eating cheaply from the standards seem to be the most reliable paths at Asti. The wine recommendations at our last meal were spot-on and the service was what it should be at a neighborhood place - a little laid back, but always attentive. As long as you're not bothered by the incessant racket of the open kitchen or the tight quarters of most of the tables, Asti remains a worthwhile evening out.


Posted by brentbuford at 07:46 PM | Comments (0)