The Austin Restaurant Scene
Joined by Tyson Cole, Uchi and Uchiko diners kick off Top Chef: Texas season ingreat sushi and sake style
Sushi and sake spirits were high Wednesday night as Uchi and Uchiko hosted a restaurant-wide showing of the Top Chef: Texas premiere where proud fans of Uchiko Executive Chef Paul Qui gathered to show their support for a much anticipated season for the Bravo food-inspired TV hit.
Among loyal diners were a handful of journalists, bloggers, and restaurant industry friends to celebrate what the Uchi and Uchiko family and supporters have deemed “Team Qui.” As Uchiko appetizers floated around paired with wine and sake throughout the one-hour show, guests chatted exuberantly during commercial breaks, but soon hushed for the Top Chef segments.
The show started off at the hallowed grounds of the Alamo featuring a Texas-sized culling of 29 “chef-testants” who were broken into three groups to compete for a final 16 spots in the show. The good news: We got to see an overzealous personal chef get kicked off early for butchering a pig into an unrecognizable mess, and we met Keith Smith, a charming South Carolina chef who had the good sense to chicken-fry a rabbit and serve it with cheesy grits. The bad news: The show only allowed time for two groups to compete, leaving the introduction of the final group—with the only Texas chefs—until next week's episode.
“I’m super excited for Paul,” says Uchi and Uchiko Chef/Owner Tyson Cole, who admits he’s probably learned more from Qui than Qui has learned from him in their eight years of working together. “It's surreal working with someone for so many years as your apprentice and watching him grow into the talent that he's become. This is a big deal for the whole Uchi team.”
Qui’s chance to represent Uchi and Uchiko on Top Chef is yet another notch in the restaurant’s celebrated story. Just last week Zagat named Uchi one of the Top 25 restaurants for the 2012 America’s Top Restaurants Guide (though the impressive pat on the back received no coverage from local press).
I’m super excited for Paul. It's surreal working with someone for so many years as your apprentice and watching him grow into the talent that he's become. This is a big deal for the whole Uchi team.
Almost from its beginning in 2003, Uchi has spurred praise for its creative and transcendent dining experience. And since Cole won the Food & Wine magazine award for Best Chef in America in 2005, Austin has had an onslaught of amazing restaurants open for the increasingly fine-tuned palates of Austin to enjoy. Perla’s, La Condesa, Justine’s, Barley Swine, Foreign & Domestic, Contigo and the illustrious Congress with the return of heralded chef David Bull at the helm—just to name a few. And let’s not forget Uchiko, the sexy son of Uchi that burst on the scene in the summer of 2010 with Cole’s savant-esque Sous Chef Paul Qui elevated to executive chef status. Let’s face it, the past five years have been a boon for Austin diners.
The little sushi restaurant that the national dining scene doubted could come out of the heart of Texas has not only nabbed the Food & Wine coup; but also a spot in the Food Network’s Iron Chef America competition; countless James Beard Award nominations, with a recent win this year for Cole as Best Southwest Chef; a new critically acclaimed cookbook; and in just a few months, Uchi Houston is set to open to show the great Space City a thing or two about how sushi is done.
But as Uchi closes in on its first decade, does it still rate as the top restaurant in Austin? Are the culinary masters from San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago still watching Uchi set the pace for Austin restaurants? If you judge by the ever-growing accolades, the unrelenting line out the door each night, and the perpetually changing menu of innovative bites—the answer is yes.
From the Top Chef kick off crowd, fellow Austin chef Zack Northcutt said he’s amazed at the tight-knit family Cole has managed to create with his entire staff.
“Uchi is a place that people in the restaurant industry really admire,” says Northcutt, who will open new restaurant, Swift’s Attic with former Uchi Sous Chef Mat Clouser later this year. “Uchi set a new bar for restaurants in Austin that most people only hope to come close to when they open a restaurant, and it continues to raise that bar.”
Self-proclaimed Uchi fan Ginny Bell remembers her first experience at Uchi a few years after it had opened. “I had the tuna and goat cheese sashimi, and I’ll never forget the experience of tasting something so unique and unexpected,” says Bell, who confesses that the first time she tried the pork belly dish, Bacon Steakie, it made her cry. “It was perfect. It pushed the limits of everything I’ve ever tasted, and every time I’ve gone back, it manages to surprise me."
But the Top Chef celebration isn’t the only place you’ll find Uchi love. Patricia Sharpe, executive editor for Texas Monthly is still a huge fan of the two U’s.
“Uchi and Uchiko are the restaurants that put Austin on the culinary map nationwide. Yes, other chefs and restaurants in the city have had received well-deserved recognition from Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Esquire and the James Beard Foundation,” says Sharpe. “But Tyson Cole, Paul Qui and Phil Speer have done game-changing work. Their level of creativity is amazing, and it hasn’t diminished. When people ask my favorite restaurants in the city—really, in Texas—Uchi and Uchiko are always at the top of the list.”
And the beat goes on.
Both Uchi and Uchiko will host sake viewing parties of Top Chef throughout the season. Tune in next week to see Paul Qui and 24 Diner Chef Andrew Curran compete for the top 16 selection.