There's plenty to like at chef/restaurateur Tommy Lee's new Uncle, the offshoot of the original Uncle on West 32nd Avenue that opens tonight (Tuesday, July 16) at 95 South Pennsylvania Street.
Those looking for something familiar from the original Uncle, which opened seven years ago in LoHi, can indulge in fan favorites like pork belly buns, spicy chicken ramen or chilled tofu, while a whole menu section devoted to highlighting heirloom rice from California's century-old Koda Farms will appeal to anyone looking for something new. Lee says dishes served with the rice will change with the seasons, but the opening menu touts a quartet of Thai curries: short rib penang, jungle curry with pork sausage and shrimp, green curry mussels, and vegetable red coconut curry.
But a new cult favorite could emerge among the noodle soups, curries, buns and other dishes inspired by the cuisines of Japan, China and Thailand: Southern-fried mushrooms. The appetizer doesn't draw attention with exotic-sounding ingredients, and at first glance the menu description could read as little more than standard barroom fried 'shrooms. But these are made with maitake — or hen of the woods — mushrooms, giving them a meaty texture that pulls apart almost like pork or chicken.
Lee explains that the maitake mushrooms must be salted to remove some of the moisture content and then air-dried at low temperature to achieve the perfect texture, all so that the seasoned breading, made with flour, corn starch and potato starch, can adhere to the mushroom and crisp nicely when fried. Before that breading goes on, though, the maitakes also spend a little time in buttermilk — another Southern cooking trick typically reserved for fried chicken. The result is a juicy mushroom with a crunchy coating that holds up to a dip in the Thai-style spicy-sweet sauce that comes on the side.
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But other new dishes, such as tamarind-rubbed grilled quail; lamb ribs with a sticky coating of orange, ginger and soy; and chilled shrimp in a blazing-hot marinade are all worth exploring, too. As is a drinks roster considerably deeper than at the older Uncle, with a handful of refreshing cocktails, a creative wine list built to complement Asian flavors, and several sakes available on tap and by the glass or bottle — some of which are exclusive to the restaurant.
Lee has populated his new eatery with veterans from his other two restaurants, including executive chef Kevin Lewis, who spent two and a half years at the LoHi Uncle; general manager Cecelia Jones, who moves up from AGM at the original; and AGM/bar manager Jordan Thomas, who tended bar at Hop Alley for a year.
Starting tonight, the new Uncle is open from 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with indoor seating for eighty guests at the bar, chef's counter and dining room. Call 720-638-1859 or visit Uncle's website for more details.