Let’s get it out of the way up front: I was wrong. Such a great phrase we should all use more often.
In this particular case, I was wrong about my Top 50 restaurants in the Austin area that I released in the Austin360 Dining Guide last month. Uroko should have held a spot on that list. Somewhere in the Top 25.
This happens on occasion — scheduling errors or lack of awareness lead me to miss a potential strong candidate for my dining guide. I’d known about Uroko and its counter-service lunch and omakase dinner service since Kayo and Takéhiro Asazu of Kome and partner chef Masazumi Saio opened the restaurant in May at Springfield General in East Austin. I even enjoyed some temaki (handroll) lunches at Uroko and included their spicy crawfish roll in a list of refreshing dishes to eat when the temperature seemed unbearable.
But every time I attempted to secure an online reservation for dinner, I was stymied. Chalk that up to the tiny space (six seats) and limited dinners (originally five seatings twice a week, now three times a week) and my inability to think two months in advance.
After another lunch visit and two flawless omakase (chef’s choice) meals at the food-court style set up in the mixed-use complex of buildings, I realized that Uroko is one of the city’s best destinations for sushi thanks to exciting flavor profiles, precise execution and solid value.
Temaki (hand rolls) make for an ideal light lunch. For those unfamiliar with the form, the chef in most cases takes a sheet of seaweed, fills it with sushi rice, fish, vegetables and other accoutrement and rolls it into a cone-shaped meal that you can eat with your hands. If you’re regularly picking up sliced sushi rolls from the grocery store, with their cold rice and often flavorless fish, you’re going to want to investigate these temaki.
Uroko serves basic rolls for $4.50 that usually include a trio of simple, quality ingredients, such as avocado and cucumber with either tuna or salmon. There is also a small selection of cooked temaki, of which I’d recommend the uangi ($5.75), sweet slivers of barbecue eel pressed together with avocado and cream cheese for a seaweed-wrapped take on a fish melt. Those who don’t eat fish will be pleased to find a quartet of vegetable temaki with ingredients such as yamagobo (pickled burdock root), shiso, cucumber and crispy quinoa.
While the basic rolls serve their, well, basic function, there is more excitement to be found in the $7 temaki listed under "Chef’s Creation," a group featuring more complex flavor profiles you’d find at a restaurant. Lemon miso and ginger perk up lush fatty salmon in the sake toro roll. Wasabi butter and crispy quinoa layer heat and crunch on fatty hamachi; ginger and Thai chili counter the aggressive tang of house-cured mackerel; and umami jelly, garlic crisps and pickled jalapeño give an aged steakhouse glow to beef tataki.
Order your rolls at the counter — I’d suggest two for a snack and four for a substantial meal — grab a glass of binchotan-activated water (or a sake slushie if you’re feeling fun), find a seat out on the patio, or indoors in the mall area between cafes, tattoo parlors, jewelry makers and more, and wait for your buzzer to alert you.
If Uroko stopped with temaki, I’d still consider it a welcome addition to the Austin dining landscape, a place to find quality sushi with smart ingredients at a reasonable price. But the omakase dinners are what make the restaurant special. When you arrive for dinner on Friday, Saturday or Monday night, you’ll likely find a mostly quiet Springdale General, the artists and business owners already headed home for the night. Even the metal gate fronting Uroko has been pulled slightly to let diners know the restaurant is not open for regular service. It’s like dining at a small sushi counter in a Tokyo subway station after the trains have stopped running.
Search the six seating areas facing the sushi bar and find your space labeled with a card that features your name printed in Japanese and English. The sole server — attendant, polite and informed — will ask whether you’d like beer, wine or sake; I recommend the three two-ounce pours from a $22 Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo Wa sake flight from producers Nagaragawa "Tenkawa," Tamano Hikari "Yamaha" and Houraisen that progresses from acidic to smoky to sweet in complementary form with the sushi pieces. Then the clock starts. The restaurant hosts five seatings at the top of the hour beginning at 5 p.m. Be punctual, and there won’t be any dawdling. The succession can feel quick for those not accustomed to Japanese style sushi dining, but you’ve come for the food. And you’ll be happy you did.
Longtime Austin sushi chefs Také and Masa, both originally from Osaka, alternate shifts running the omakase. Each serves a 12-course menu ($65) that features the same fish and proteins for a few months, but the chefs bring their own personal touches to each meal. Také served my dinner one week and Masa the next, and there were very few identical pieces (not that I would have complained). The chef forms the rice with his hands, layers the fish or other protein on top and then finishes with yakumi (toppings) before swinging around the counter and hand delivering the pieces with a brief explanation.
Some of the sushi blend classic Edo style, in which curing is used to preserve the fish, with modern touches. So you might find a piece of kelp-cured suzuki (Japanese seabass) set beneath a jiggle of dashi broth jelly, plum paste and a slick of olive oil. A supple piece of aji (horse mackerel) cured with salt and vinegar arrives one night from chef Také beneath a piquant mix of grated ginger and wasabi stem, and another night chef Masa punches up the fish’s miso ginger sauce with unexpected powdered garlic and green onions.
The simple beauty of voluptuous Scottish salmon, the fish dangling over the sides of its mildly vinegared rice, is adorned with a dollop of lemon miso and grated ginger, reminding you of the first time you fell in love with sushi. Chef Také tops long stretches of pale crimson and white snow crab with salmon roe, shiso leaf and salmon miso made with dashi, mirin, sake and lemon zest, while chef Masa goes a simpler but equally effective route with a spread of addictive wasabi butter. Both realize less is more with bluefin tuna from Baha, touching it with just a scintilla of wasabi.
The chefs mix various techniques in with the raw and cured offerings, quickly smoking ika (squid) under glass with cherrywood and then topping it alternatively with spicy fish roe and dehydrated sea urchin and gold tobiko, the smoke and sweetness of the wood and squid finding perfect harmony. They fry the entire botan ebi (shrimp) shell to a crunchy finish that tastes like bacon from the sea and serve it as a prelude to the raw tail meat that chef Také surprisingly finishes with beet foam and fish roe, while chef Masa gives the gelatinous meat a touch of yuzu jelly and a yuzu kosho.
The meal progresses from the light and bright to richer and more aggressive flavors, culminating with sea urchin, one night flecked with dashi-marinated salmon roe, and "the finisher" (quotes mine), a velvety piece of housemade soy sauce-glazed duck breast centered with foie gras and speckled with crunchy quinoa, a dish that some may find reminiscent of the foie nigiri served at Uchi, chef Masa’s home for 16 years before opening Uroko. The tamago soon follows, and as a few people from the next seating begin to hover, before you know it, your meal has ended.
The generously portioned meal breaks down to $5.50 per nigiri piece, which is generally a little more than what you’d expect to pay at Kome and a little less than what you’d pay at Uchi or other high-end sushi restaurants. The difference here is not just the portions, flavor profiles and experience — the chefs talk you through their thinking and sourcing, and you hope your dining companions have enough respect to keep their chatter non-intrusive — but also in the pacing and the courses chosen by the chefs. You will spend $65, but you’ll experience a full range of dynamic flavors and textures. And you’ll leave not just happy but also full. A testament to two chefs in full command of their brisk but expansive 45 minutes at one of the city’s best restaurants.
Top 50 restaurants in Austin
Where to eat seafood and sushi in Austin