What's the fuss, you ask? Uchi's chef and founder, Tyson Cole, has attracted national attention for his modern interpretation of traditional Japanese cuisine, winning the Best Chef: Southwest award from the James Beard Foundation in 2011 (a year in which Jennifer Jasinski of Rioja and Alex Seidel of Fruition were semi-finalists), among other accolades. Since opening in 2003, Uchi has added locations in Houston and Dallas, and Cole has also opened two other Japanese restaurants: Uchiko and Top Knot, in Austin and Dallas, respectively.
Uchi was unique when it opened in a tiny bungalow ("uchi" is Japanese for "house") in a tree-shaded Austin neighborhood fourteen years ago; aside from the reportedly stellar menu, part of the charm of the original Uchi is the setting and relaxed Austin vibe. Cole's creation is a quintessentially Austin eatery for Austin residents (though plenty of tourists make their way there, too), even if barbecue, Tex-Mex or fried catfish aren't on the roster.
Taking the restaurant out of that context and plopping it down in a new concrete-and-glass condo complex is likely to strip Uchi of some of its magic, however. Granted, the S*Park development (from Tres Birds Workshop and TreeHouse Brokerage & Development) that Uchi will call home isn't exactly a typical slap-dash housing project meant to fill an immediate need; the property will include a communal greenhouse, underground parking, solar power and central lawn and gardens just for residents. But that's still far from the cozy confines of the original, or even of the newer Houston and Dallas outposts, which both took over older buildings — an aging Mexican cantina and a vacant bank, respectively— and refurbished them into hip, contemporary restaurant spaces.
As at the other Uchi expansions, the Denver branch is expected to encompass creative sushi à la the original, some items unique to Denver, and some of the Japanese farmhouse cooking of Uchiko. By all accounts, dinner is nothing short of salvation by sushi, with a price tag as expected for such an experience.
But that's not exactly new to Denver, either. Last year, Matsuhisa landed in Cherry Creek, accompanied by plenty of buzz caused by chef/owner Nobu Matsuhisa's worldwide reputation. And on Old South Pearl Street, Sushi Den has been setting the standard for both traditional and modern Japanese cuisine for more than thirty years, keeping ahead of trends and adding Izakaya Den and Ototo to broaden the experience along the way. Closer to downtown, chef Wayne Conwell quietly turns out stunning omakase spreads at Sushi Sasa, studded with fresh, glistening seafood and house-fermented bites that bridge old-world flavors and modern culinary experimentation. New to the game are Sushi Ronin and Mizu Izakaya in LoHi, which both offer unique dishes in a wide range of prices, omakase experiences and menus that stretch well beyond seafood. If you're willing to head outside the hot Denver dining zones, Land of Sushi in Centennial does it as well as anyone else in town, without the need to jostle for space or make reservations weeks in advance.
Denver chefs have been striving to create a culinary scene that's both distinct and local; we have homegrown talent as well as kitchen pros who have moved here to make their mark with something new. But does taking a known quantity and transplanting it to a different setting work as well? Certainly Uchi will have no shortage of customers, given its fame and the setting, just off Larimer Street in RiNo. I'm just not convinced that Denver needs Uchi to grow as a dining destination, or that the restaurant will add anything to the scene other than a bunch of new Instagrammed photos and another long wait list.
Go and see for yourself when Uchi finally opens. I'll be spending my dollars earmarked for Japanese cuisine on aburi scallops under the retracting roof at Izakaya Den, on oddball yamaimo with tuna at Sushi Ronin, or on creamy, chilled housemade tofu at Mizu — all homegrown eateries that have helped make Denver a delicious town.