Uchi Denver

2.5 Stars

The Draw:
Large menu of inventive Japanese small plates; uncommon sushi offerings.
The Drawback:
A few dishes need finessing; dinner service can be rushed.
Noise Level:
Moderately loud.
Don’t Miss:
Daily nigiri specials, crudos, romaine salad, shrimp tempura, desserts.

Uchi Denver is a big production, a swaggering Texas import set at the edge of Curtis Park. Open since this past October, it’s the fourth restaurant of the same name by chef Tyson Cole; the original dates to 2003 in Austin. There, Cole was credited with taking that city’s appreciation of sushi and artful small plates to a new level. He even won a James Beard Award in 2011 for his exacting respect for traditional Japanese techniques and ingredients, and his playful recombinations thereof.

Let’s be clear, though: This isn’t a Colorado interpretation of a 16-year-old success. It’s a branch-plant extension of Uchis in Dallas, Houston, and Austin. And given Denver’s wealth of modern Japanese restaurants, I would have preferred a new idea from a star chef like Cole. (Just over a year ago, he opened a self-described “Asian smokehouse” called Loro in Austin, after all.) But a Texas reviewer I trust tells me the original Uchi remains beloved, vital, and fresh, so perhaps the more useful question here is whether Cole—via his local deputy, chef de cuisine Brandon Brumback—has brought his Austin A game to a city that admittedly likes big productions. (Consider El Five and Safta, the latter another splashy import that debuted Alon Shaya’s Israeli cuisine in Denver when it arrived last year).

Uchi Denver is certainly a major-league space. The modern, boxy, industrial restaurant is warmed with lots of wood and by a sort of tatami-room geometry of grids, posts, and pillars. A long sushi bar sits at the center of things, morphing into a cocktail bar at one end. Despite the sushi bar’s size, most of the seating takes place at tables in several different areas. This is a restaurant built for heavy traffic, and it’s extravagantly staffed.

Assorted nigiri and the Fiery Yu cocktail. Photo by Matt Nager.

The menu of small plates (which range from $5 to $24) is so long—there are more than 60 items, including 20 or so daily specials—that no server can do it justice without pulling up a chair. Barring that, you’ll have to study; I wished for a few more signposts. How many diners know that “yasaimono” are vegetables, “agemono” are fried things, and “Toyosu selections” refers to the new facility that replaced Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji seafood market? Dish names like “hirame usuzukuri” and “ocha zuke” are mysterious, but the accompanying descriptions are admittedly intriguing. There’s a crudo of “tuna, poblano, Asian pear, chili” from the “cool tastings” list; oak-grilled walu walu with “ponzu, yuzu marmalade, myoga” from “hot tastings”; and a makimono roll called “ham and eggs” that contains pork belly katsu, beer mustard, and a yolk custard.

All of which sounds very fusion-y. Much of it is, though the food is generally executed with great care for clean flavors and with the freshest possible fish. What bothered me during my first two meals was an increasing sense of military urgency that followed the genial start of service and the seemingly random order in which the food arrived, like incoming artillery. At least three times, staff snatched things away before we were done. And at the sushi bar, there was no sense of being taken care of by one chef—it, too, is a production line.

Still, much of the food at Uchi was delicious. Walu walu is a dense white fish with a richness almost suggesting pork, offset by aromatic citrus notes. A black bream crudo daily special had ponzu, peppery nasturtium leaves, and bits of ginger that were fried for a bitter counterpoint. In another special, chunks of sunchoke were almost caramelized, their parsniplike flavor contrasting with grapefruit and radish, the whole thing on a cheeky green-goddess-esque dressing. Other highlights included a delightful nigiri special of sweet snow crab brushed with brown butter; a finger-food salad of romaine spears dusted with crunchy wild rice and a cashew pesto dressing reminiscent of a nutty mayonnaise; and large, stretched-out, sweet shrimp in delicate tempura batter that we munched like cocktail sausages.

Sweet Spot: Uchi’s Fried Milk dessert is a knockout. Photo by Matt Nager.

The bar delivered well-made cocktails, too. Try the Fiery Yu with gin, yuzu honey, and Thai chile simple syrup or the tequila-based Hanami Season, tart and bright pink with hibiscus. And save room for the clever sweets created by pastry chef Ariana Quant—especially her creamy coconut tapioca, the Fried Milk custard served with rich, salty fudge and milky ice cream, and the chocolate popcorn ice cream on a macaron spiked with black pepper.

But the sheer volume of dishes means there are opportunities for the kitchen to stumble. Lamb shoulder, slow-cooked until almost like duck confit, had been pressed into a small rectangular monument meant to be eaten with a little spoon, but it was so dense we had to hack at it, rendering the spoon into a tiny garden spade. Sliced wagyu, meanwhile, served with delicious smoked turnips, lacked wagyu succulence. A bland yellowtail maki came with a too-sweet, almost jammy sauce, and fried Brussels sprouts were greasy.

These dishes weren’t deal killers, but after two meals—one at the sushi bar, one at a table for four—my reaction to Uchi Denver sagged from an initial wow to not far north of meh, due to its lack of Tokyo (or Austin) soul…until I changed strategy. I decided to return as a solo walk-in and focus on sake and nigiri, and on a busy Saturday evening, I lucked into the second-to-last seat at the cocktail bar. To keep the pace leisurely, I ordered two or three bites of fish-on-rice at a time.

What unfolded was a treat. The range of daily specials from Toyosu was remarkable that night: threeline grunt, halfbeak, rosy sea perch, unicorn leather-jacket, flounder fin, horse mackerel, opaleye, gizzard shad, firefly squid. Such exotics don’t come cheap, of course. By the time I popped the last squid into my mouth, I had dropped $130. Mind you, that included three premium sakes from Uchi’s 25-bottle list (which features more than 10 by-the-glass offerings); my favorite was a glass of Maboroshi Mystery junmai daigingo, with its sweet, fruity attack and long, bitter finish.

Fun & Fresh: The Uchi Salad turns romaine into tasty finger food. Photo by Matt Nager.

Uchi’s Toyosu nigiri verged on miniature, resulting in little slices of fish resting on wee clumps of rice, often topped with a miniscule condiment for a burst of pickled, roasted, citrusy, spicy, or crunchy punctuation. Occasionally, the fish was lightly torched for a charred note, as with the flounder fin. Very little wasabi was used, and none is offered on the side, nor is soy much in evidence. The focus is on oceanic flavors and textures: sweet and sticky (the perch), firm and a bit oily (the halfbeak), or fishy-livery (the tiny firefly squid). If there’s a weakness, it’s the rice, which I found slightly too vinegary, though not necessarily in error as I’ve had similar rice in Japan.

The pacing of my nigiri meal was relaxed. Advice from the friendly bartender was sage, and the food was delivered by servers who approached discretely from behind. Oddly, the bar area seemed to be the quietest place in the house.

Having found refuge there, I now think of Uchi as a restaurant with several fronts. If you like izakaya clamor and Big Operation bustle, graze through the menu at one of the tables: That can be an enjoyable night out. If you like things slower and focused—not exactly calm, but not frantic either—concentrate on the sakes and the daily sushi specials plus, perhaps, a few small plates for fun, preferably from a seat at the cocktail bar. Uchi Denver may not be an original, but it can deliver a fine meal if you know what you’re in for.