Uchi, Dallas' newest and most aspiring sushi restaurant, offers plenty of ways to enjoy a meal filled with inventive and exciting Japanese food; you just need to decide how much money you're willing to part with. Not ready to take out a home equity loan? Come during happy hour between 5 and 6:30 p.m. daily, and you'll find plenty of bites for less than $10 and budget-friendly drinks to wash them down. These plates may be small (even by Uchi's diminutive standards), but they are no less intricate than their regular menu counterparts and provide incredible value.
2817 Maple Ave., 214-855-5454, uchirestaurants.com, 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, $$$$
Madai carpaccio $18
Hama chili $18.50
Maguro sashimi $18.50
Nigiri, single piece $2.50-$9.50
Olive gelato $9
At the other end of the spectrum is the omakase, the chef's tasting, which turns almost complete control of your meal over to one of the masterful sushi chefs working behind the bar. After assuring a customer has no allergies or a seething hatred of horse mackerel, the chef takes charge of everything from ingredient selection to pacing — including how much a diner is charged. On the evening I decided to dive into the deep end, that was $240 after tax and a 20 percent tip for a meal that I ate alone at the sushi bar, with no alcohol. That one-hour-and-45-minute flavor roller coaster was the most expensive meal I've eaten in Dallas, and it was worth it — of course, the Observer picked up the tab.
My evening started with the tiniest ball of melon sorbet, an amuse bouche offered to customers no matter how much they've signed on to spend for the evening. Uchi employs a most delicious overture they call "wait food." They're tiny bites that might greet you as you walk through the door (a small skewer of eggplant with an even smaller dollop of creamy sauce) or wait for your table at the bar (fried items from the tempura menu).
Delicious wait food like this could go a long way to placate impatient diners, but I didn't wait very long for anything at Uchi. Only a few minutes after I confirmed my chef's tasting selection with my server, a plate of sea bream sashimi landed in front of me at the bar. The fish was garnished with golden tobiko (flying fish roe) that danced and sparkled in the overhead lighting as I worked the fish with my chopsticks.
Clean and light, the sea bream was the polar opposite of the next morsel, a single nigiri draped with a slice of very gently seared beef, described by my chef as A5 Wagyu. The marbling was so intense the beef ate like toro. Do you think you've had beef that was melt-in-your-mouth tender? Try this and find out how wrong you are.
Next up was a salad composed of small lettuce leaves stood up in glassware and served with a creamy dressing for dipping. A waiter instructed me to eat the tangy leaves with my hands. After that came sea bass simply finished with sea salt that crunched in my teeth.
A good omakase experience has a tempo and rhythm, and before I knew it, I was awash in more flavors in an event that unfurled like a great musical performance. Hamachi belly lapped in ponzu was good, but the baby bonito that followed was an aria that (at least in my head) stopped the entire dining room. Fans of the fatty fish know it provides the pinnacle of umami, but a high fat content means the fish spoils quickly. The bonito served to me at Uchi was exceptionally fresh-tasting. Paper-thin slices of fried garlic added sweetness and crunch to a bite I played on repeat until the last of the six or seven slices disappeared.
Spanish mackerel soon followed and highlighted that even Uchi isn't perfect. The fish was, well, fishy, and while mackerel is prized for its assertive flavor, I've had pieces that were cleaner elsewhere. This criticism is relative — Uchi's worst mackerel is still pretty great — but when a restaurant shows it is capable of near perfection the flaws shine through more clearly.
There were other little bumps. The sushi rice served during my first visit was revelatory. Each grain clung to the next with just a wish and fell to pieces the second it hit my tongue. The night of my omakase the same starch was dry and comparatively chewy.
And the green tea I sipped was muddy in color and flat in flavor. Sencha doesn't wither as quickly as sushi does, but it still has a shelf life and is best served within a year after it was processed. An electric-jade-green bowl of sencha, which also imparts umami, could have elevated that already stratospheric bonito experience. This tea was steeped like an afterthought.
Not that I was very bothered after a paper parcel filled with a shallow pool of soup arrived. Only a few restaurants put as much thought into their tea service, and none of them plate up fish suspended in a heady broth as delicious as this. The parcel was gently opened in front of me, stewed tomatoes and kaffir lime wafted, and everyone within sniffing distance swooned.
And still the dishes came, larger now to blast away every last remnant of hunger: a crunchy hamachi roll with roasted garlic; tuna sashimi; pork belly seared and served with tiny wedges of citrus; until my chef had the courage to ask if an encore was in the cards. "Your next dish will be the dessert," my chef offered, "unless there's anything else you'd like to try?" I clarified with my waitress that extras would be tacked on to the previously agreed on price and then waved my chef off. I was stuffed, anyway.
As I chomped my way through my fried mango mochi, I considered the check that was about to arrive. The week before, I'd brought a date to this same restaurant, grazed my way through happy hour dishes, ordered a handful of entrées, beers and two desserts and still spent less than I was about to for omakase. The first meal was every bit as refined, and I set my own pace, choosing dishes that suited my tastes and cueing up a sweet close before I felt too full.
The magic of Uchi is that diners are provided that choice. The cheapest of customers might be able to sip sparkling water and fill up on wait food if they have the gall to pull it off, and diners on a budget can choose from intricate, layered bites that cost less than a bottle of beer at times. And no matter how customers navigate the menu, they're treated with the same patient, attentive service that customers willing to drop a car payment receive, in the same lavish and massive dining room.
Angular, modern light fixtures cast light in haphazard directions in a dimly lit space with minimalist decor. Sparse art hangs on the walls (there are only a few works), including a chalkboard painting filled with green and magenta orbs. It's a stylized depiction of the lime cream dessert with puffed rice and tiny balls of seasonal fruit.
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The colors pop from the beige and drab wood tones that make up the walls and floors, in what sometimes seems more like a stage or performance space than a dining room.
The comparison is appropriate. Uchi entertains and even puzzles diners as much as it feeds them. And if the restaurant can continue to cater to the budget-conscious as well as it does deep pockets, a long succession of repeat performances is almost certain.