Chef Tyson Cole respects rules of skillfully crafted, traditional Asian food. He just doesn’t always follow them precisely.
“Traditional sushi is like a locked box. You can’t mess with it. But I was like, 'I’m going to flip the box over on its head,'” the Uchi executive chef and owner says.
For the last two months, Cole’s team has been perfectly messing with southern Asian cuisine at Top Knot, a light-filled aerie crafted of blond wood and splashes of colorful art that's perched above Uchi on Maple Avenue. The latter opened last June, drawing masses of diners hungry for Cole's artful take on Japanese food. Reservations are a hot ticket at Uchi, and the prices can get steep. Top Knot is more laid-back — it's walk-in dining only — but its menu is still inspired by Uchi and food is equally high-caliber.
“It’s kind of like Uchi’s little brother,” says Cole, a 45-year-old Austin local. It’s also the first of Uchi’s five restaurants serving alcohol beyond beer, wine and sake, offering a list of cocktails like The Dark Ernest (rum, orange, lime) and the Birdhouse Bramble (vodka, raspberry, thyme, peach bitters).
“We don’t have liquor at Uchi because ... there's no room for it; and also, people drink a lot of sake at sushi restaurants, so I don’t think you need it,” he said. “The food up here at Top Knot, it just seems to have a better relationship with liquor to me. It just fits — the fun factor, the desserts, the food, the fried items — it just screams mixed drink or beer.”
Cole is confident that while Uchi is going to continue its success, Top Knot is a chance to grow in a new way.
“We’re going to make food up here that we’d never make downstairs in a million years,” he said. “Many years ago, I used to create 'no' lists. Because if you don’t have parameters, you don't have structures, people can’t be creative because they don’t know what’s OK and what’s not OK … Top Knot, right now, there aren’t very many 'no' lists. We really want to come up here, get creative and make the most delicious food we possibly can.”
The goal, Top Knot chef Angela Hernandez told the Observer in January, is to create food that's "craveable."
"It’s Asian-inspired and Japanese at its core, but we have the liberty to do things with the menu — like the hot fried chicken sandwich that has more of a Southern flair — and just have fun with it," she said. "Food should be fun."
The Uchi brand itself has recently undergone some changes. The entire company of restaurants is now called Hai Hospitality, the word acting as a nod to the staff’s camaraderie among themselves and with customers. Hai is a Japanese word meaning a step beyond yes, more like, “I hear you,” or, “I got it,” Cole said.
“That word simply has so much meaning. And we say it in the restaurants all the time: The kitchen says it, the wait staff says it, the managers say it, and so much so, they even say it outside of work. It’s very addictive,” Cole said.
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Cole’s team took its time bringing Uchi to Dallas, and it didn’t rush getting the doors open upstairs, either. But it’s obviously working out OK for Hai Hospitality.
“I really think Dallas people have this unspoken level of quality that they demand,” he says. “It’s more professional, more serious, it’s more big-city. And because of that, it’s more tucked-in shirts, and you've really got to show up,” he said.
Cole and his team are continuing to experiment with food, but having spent 10 years living in Tokyo, he understands the importance of respect in Japanese culture, whether it has to do with working with others or the food people eat.
“We’re not ever going to put out plates that aren’t respectful to the product that we’re dealing with, because it’s so beautiful when it comes through the back door. We’re not going to do too much to it,” he said. “And if that isn’t Japanese, I don’t know what is.”
Top Knot is located above Uchi Dallas at 2817 Maple Ave.