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Uchiko, the good cousin

The resemblance is striking, but Uchi's northern branch stands on its own

Mike Sutter

The second time I pulled into Uchiko's parking lot, National Public Radio was interviewing Danish chef Rene Redzepi, whose Noma had just been called the greatest restaurant on earth. He's written this new Nordic cookbook. You know, with simple instructions (`submerge in liquid nitrogen') and everyday ingredients: sea buckthorn juice, hazelnut soil, birch stock.

Mmmm, pretense.

Nobody can cook from a book like that, but we like to look at the pictures. That's why we go to places like Uchiko, to do more than look at the pictures. To get a taste of powdered olives, pecan soil, fish caramel, tobacco cream - and maybe just a little bit of pretense.

The latest Zagat guide holds up Uchiko's opening in July as an example of high-end restaurants making a comeback nationwide. Locally, Uchiko's opening felt more like the logical extension of the explosively popular Uchi brand cultivated by chef-owner Tyson Cole. In fact, he'll tell you that in concept, Uchiko evolved from being a twin to Uchi to being something more like a cousin, with recognizable family traits but an identity of its own.

Forging Uchiko's identity has fallen to executive chef Paul Qui, who draws culinary inspiration as much from the Philippines (where he was born), Vietnam and Thailand as he does from Japan. Nowhere on the menu is Qui's presence felt more strongly than in a fried chicken dish called karaage ($16), with a crackling thin shell around impossibly tender meat, set off with a dish of green apple and pickled watermelon rind. Familiar textures with the exotic tang of street food. It's similar to a dish you'll find at Qui's East Side King food trailer behind the Liberty bar on East Sixth Street, the side venture he started with two fellow cooks from Uchi.

By his own account, Qui put together a kitchen staff at Uchiko that reflected his own humble beginnings as a walk-on fry-cook at Uchi. The ride's been bumpy. They hired more help than they needed in the beginning; one of those hires spun off and started an eclectic trailer on the East Side called Not Your Mama's Food Truck. The respected sushi chef they brought over from Uchi has left.

But the sushi bar at Uchiko carries on, carried in part by Qui's simple notion: `The beauty of a sushi piece is that you can give them that one perfect bite.' The best expression of that philosophy is a piece of Norwegian mackerel (shime saba, $4.50) with basil leaf and tiny slices of yellow tomato and truffle. It's a balance of land and sea in one bite: marine oil, acid, herbal grass, earth.

There are more `perfect bites' of sushi: Spanish white anchovy with lemon zest (boquerones, $4); salmon with mint, preserved lemon and yogurt (sake, $3.50); seared beef tongue with sweet fish caramel (gyutan, $4); simple freshwater eel grilled to a fine-edged crunch (unagi, $3). We lost our balance only on a piece of hamachi overwhelmed by jalapeño ($4.50).

An early Uchiko menu had little crossover from Uchi, but a few dishes have crept over: maguro sashimi with goat cheese and Fuji apple ($18), the popular fried Shag Roll with salmon and sun-dried tomato ($14), a hamachi dish with Thai peppers and orange ($18).

Some migration seemed inevitable. And although Uchiko can't be called independent of its crosstown sister, neither is it a clone. The dishes exclusive to Uchiko's menu rise (and occasionally fall) on their own.

Philip Speer is the pastry chef for both restaurants, with a different lineup for each, still working as comfortably with nontraditional elements (tobacco, tomato, corn) as he does with chocolate and caramel. His tobacco cream dessert ($9) numbs the mouth like a pouch of Red Man chew, finishing with the sweet burn of scotch extinguished and amplified by deep chocolate sorbet. It's aggressive to the same degree a dessert called `fried milk' ($9) is affable, loved by all for bringing together ice cream, fried pastry cream, a dusting of toasted milk and a hint of chocolate. Food geeks will praise its textures; you'll like it because it's fun.

One of Uchiko's best dishes is called koviche ($19), glowing white pieces of scallop with the light green sweetness of tomatillo and a sultry dusting of powdered olive, gilded like a stegosaurus with crunchy, snack-chip sails for scooping the flavors.

A plate bringing together Wagyu flatiron beef, matsutake mushroom and yuzu citrus (Wagyu take, $28) was undercut by onion skin, papery and sour, and meat as defiant as a carnivore's chewing gum. But elsewhere on land, pork belly with long orange and purple carrots (ninjin bacon, $18) brought out the sharper culinary knives by incorporating the tannic pull of pecan soil into a mix of sweet, fatty glaze and bitter herbs. Its almost indecent richness was matched by a silky confit of shredded rabbit on mild curry with a soft-poached egg (usagi yaki, $18).

In the too-polite-for-its-own-good category, I'd put an anemic Suzuki carpaccio of sea bass and cilantro stems ($16). And the trophy for fussiest plate would go to a Tron-like grid of squid and apple playing hide-and-seek under herbs and red curry (ika yaki, $12), hard to appreciate as separate elements, a chore to unify in one forkful.

The loudest roll on the sushi menu is the Toledo ($14), shaggy as a mammoth with fried almond slices, alive with spicy chorizo, briny tuna and a torrent of grilled garlic. It's a counterbalance for the more domesticated Arcade Roll ($12), with salmon, heirloom tomatoes and greens in rice paper, and a statement against the more utilitarian P-38 ($9) and crunchy tuna ($12) rolls, which wouldn't be out of place in a grocery case.

You'll want help parsing the menu, and a steady hand to pace the dishes by intensity, texture and quantity. A waiter at Uchi told us the stack of waiter applications for Uchiko covered a table like snowfall, and my experiences at Uchiko tell me they hired well. The table is overseen by one waiter, but any number of people carry dishes to the table, each of them able to talk about the karaage or the Toledo Roll or the tobacco cream as if they'd made it themselves.

Even though it was carved out of a nondescript office building, Uchiko clings to the earth with fireside color tones and wood. So much wood. Rough-sawn, lacquered, charred, on the walls, on the floors, on the ceilings. A lodge for the progressive set, designed by Michael Hsu.

It's less cozy than Uchi's 100-seat bungalow, but Uchiko can seat 200, spread across a bar, a lounge, a main dining room, a sushi bar with a Tokyo glow and a private dining room with a kitchen pass-through that looks like a Mongolian siege gate. Uchiko accepts reservations for many of those seats, making it a less stressful - and in the twisted logic of hot spots, less hot - proposition than playing musical chairs at Uchi.

Uchiko

4200 N. Lamar Blvd., No. 140. 916-4808,

www.uchikoaustin.com .

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

Prices: Starters and salads $4.50 -$8. Sushi $2-50-$5 per piece, $15-$30 for sashimi. Sushi rolls $9-$16. `Cool tastings' $6-$19. `Hot tastings' $12-$19. Grilled dishes $12-$28. Fried dishes $4-$16. Desserts $4-$9.

Payment: All major cards

Alcohol: Wine, sake and beer, plus inventive cocktails made from them (e.g. the Wilson, with two types of sherry and smoked citrus). The wine list carries more than 30 whites ($31-$156 a bottle), more than 20 reds ($35-$435), two roses ($39-$51) and seven sparklers ($38-$35), plus dessert and fortified wines. More than 20 by the glass, $8-$16. About 18 sakes, with 10 by the glass for $4-$16. About a dozen bottled beers, including three Japanese brands, starting at $5.

Wheelchair access: Yes

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