Bread and Brew
Late-night sushi and sake-tinis, tenebrous nooks and shimmering aquariums - you can imagine an out-of-town entrepreneur eyeing North Mississippi Avenue and thinking that this is just what the up-and-coming district needs. But the owners of Uchu know their neighborhood better than that, and so they've created a sushi bar that also sells southern fried chicken.
One of Uchu's three owners is Chris Fitzpatrick, who owns the bar Moloko, across the street. As at Moloko, you get the feeling that he may have gone into the restaurant business as a pretext for building custom fish tanks. At Uchu, bright little fish swim in a glowing blue tank that parallels the long bar, and at the back, koi weave back and forth, suspended part way up a wall. The aquariums could be windows, and the dark narrow could be a submarine.
On the menu, more fish.
Clean slices of locally caught albacore have an interesting, buttermilk-y note. The salmon is silky - sustainably farmed in British Columbia, I am assured. I would have liked to see some wild Northwest salmon on the menu as well. An albacore roll with green onion and ponzu was a little too dainty; it could have used more fish. A shrimp tempura roll, on the other hand, was generously filled with cucumber, avocado, and shrimp with their tails sticking out.
As far as basics go, everything is as it should be: the rice is well-cooked and seasoned, the seaweed is fresh and pliant, and the prices are reasonable.
There's a list of simple house rolls, and more complicated special rolls that wander pretty far from Japanese culinary traditions regarding the serving of raw fish.
Uchu's Kobe beef nigiri, for instance, is neither raw nor fish. But the deftly seasoned and finely textured meat works against the neutrality of the rice in the same way that fish does.
Kobe beef also appears in the much less minimalistic Uchu Roll. This over-the-top roll contains the following: grilled asparagus, daikon, crab, beef, microgreens, horseradish sauce, and fried shallots. It's a steakhouse meal in sushi form, awkward to eat, but pretty tasty, especially if you can maneuver a little of everything into your mouth at one time. The shallots, fried in rings like onions, wouldn't stay put, but they were delicious and would have been great with a cheeseburger.
Pork belly forms the heart of the Kakuni Roll, which is wrapped up with daikon, romaine and hot mustard. Kakuni is a traditional Japanese dish of simmered pork belly; mustard gives it a somewhat Western bite, while the braised daikon - musty and turnip-like on its own - provides a mild bridge that somehow ties it all together.
Along with meat-lovers, Uchu caters to non-fish eaters at the other end of the spectrum with a number of vegan dishes. There are rolls with pickled daikon, Japanese squash, and a veggie tempura mixed roll with Vegenaise - but before bringing a vegan friends here, make sure the aquariums aren't going to freak them out.
Or the sight of people sucking on chicken bones.
There is such a thing as Japanese fried chicken (kara-age, in bite-sized pieces), but Uchu's is American, bone-in, with lots and lots of crispy crust. Sizzling hot and very moist inside, this chicken tastes so southern that we asked for hot sauce, with Tabasco or Crystal in mind. Instead we were served sriracha, and it turned out to be a match made in heaven.
Like a lot of things at Uchu, it sounds incongruous on paper, but it works in practice. When you're sitting at the bar, sipping a Manhattan tinged with galangal and listening to Louis Jordan, the mixed menu doesn't feel like investors hedging their bets - it just feels like part of the neighborhood.
3 p.m. to midnight Monday-Thursday, 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, noon to midnight Sunday, 21 and older only after 10 p.m., 3940 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-281-8248, www.uchusushi.com, sushi $3-$18, chicken $4 a piece