James Beard Award-winning chef Tyson Cole has risen from fairly humble beginnings to being one of the premier chefs in the foodie city of Austin. He opened his first restaurant, Uchi, in a refurbished bungalow in South Austin in 2003 and has since gone on to open two additional restaurants in the city, three more in Texas and now finally one outside the Lone Star State. On Thursday, October 4, the RiNo incarnation of Uchi opened, bringing the Front Range excellent modern Japanese cuisine that has been praised both for its innovative nature and general commitment to quality.
While Denver certainly has its fair share of sushi restaurants, providing both classic and more modern approaches, Uchi’s menu still has the potential to cut through the noise. All of Cole’s Texas restaurants — unified under the Hai Hospitality Group — have been enormously successful, and for good reason. The chef has a deep understanding of the traditional foundation and food culture that he’s working within, but the menu is entirely filled with items that never attempt to reconfigure classics. Instead, the chef uses the raw materials to develop something new but not entirely unrecognizable. The cuisine is firmly rooted in Japanese conventions and ingredients — no fusion to be found here — but the use of unusual ingredients and presentations gives the food a great deal of life. Cole’s desire to innovate led him to open Loro — an Asian smokehouse — with famed Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue. While Denver eaters will have to head south for a taste of the cue, Cole’s presence in the city is a good sign.
As with all of Hai’s restaurants the Denver outpost has taken great care to make the interior both comfortable and chic. The setup makes the reasonably large space feel surprisingly intimate, and the well-stocked bar and ample seating make it a great happy hour destination. The Sake Social Hour features $3 beers, individual tastings of their more elaborate dishes and beef tongue nigiri from 5 – 6:30 p.m every day.
While much of the menu is taken directly from the Austin original, Cole, chef de cuisine Brandon Brumback and pastry chef Ariana Quant have developed some original dishes specific to the new location. The aptly titled beets ($11) is heirloom beets, black sesame, grapefruit and malted barley — the result being equally eye-catching and appetizing. The lamb shoulder ($22) is elegantly presented over a bed of buttered rice, black truffle and smoked kombu. The rice is bright green, making the glistening piece of meat shine all the more brightly. The sake toro aburi ($16) is salmon belly, stonefruit and horseradish.
Cole has a knack for combining flavors that might at first appear contradictory to impeccable result. Most everything on the menu is designed to be enjoyed without soy sauce, and considering the delicacy of the employed flavors, the desire to let the food speak for itself seems entirely appropriate. Altius Farms will have a greenhouse above the restaurant to provide seasonal vegetables for the changing menu.
While dinner is certainly sensational, it would be foolish to not leave room for dessert. One of the menu’s true shining stars is Quant’s fried milk ($9). The deceptively simple combination of vanilla custard, salted fudge and toasted blondie turns into a textural revelation in Quant’s hands. Cole has a knack for merging odd but brilliant flavors, but one of his greatest successes has been his ability to recognize talent — allowing his employees to shine on their own terms. The family environment that he’s curated translates nicely all the way to the customer. Quant’s dessert selections fit the theme of the restaurant, being both elegant and at first glance, odd.
Denver’s restaurant scene has been changing dramatically over the course of the past several years. Many great local chefs have been developing strong reputations while outside groups are realizing the city is fertile ground for setting up shop. Uchi’s presence here is a good sign. In a city as competitive as Austin, the group has managed to flourish, and the decision to bring the first one outside the state of Texas here is no trifling matter. While the menu is delicious, it is not inexpensive — but for a special occasion, you’d be hard pressed to find as an exciting spot to have opened recently.
Uchi is located at 2500 Lawrence St., Denver. It is open Sunday – Thursday 5 – 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 5 – 11 p.m.
All photography by Kyle Cooper, unless noted otherwise.