Tyson Cole opened the original Uchi, with its non-traditional expression of high-end Japanese food, in Austin, Texas, 20 years ago. Since then, the empire-building sushi chef has won a James Beard Award and rolled out outposts in Dallas, Denver, Houston and Miami.
But he no doubt feels the magnitude of what he’s about to do in Los Angeles. On Thursday, Dec. 7, Cole and Hai Hospitality will debut the sprawling, 191-seat Uchi L.A. in West Hollywood.
Cole knows that Los Angeles is where Nobu Matsuhisa famously opened Matsuhisa in 1987, which carved a path for sushi chefs all over America. He knows that L.A. is also the city of Kazunori Nozawa’s Sugarfish, as well as all the excellent Japanese food in the San Fernando Valley and South Bay.
“I’m very grateful to be here,” Cole tells Observer. “I think it’s the best sushi city in the country because of the execution, because of the selection. I’m very grateful to be able to add to that.”
Cole and his team at Uchi are constantly focused on constructing perfect bites, on coming up with habit-forming flavor combinations and on finding harmony where others might see dissonance. Whether you’re ordering à la carte or enjoying omakase, Uchi is a restaurant that colors outside the lines. Yes, you can build a meal around nigiri from Tokyo’s Toyosu fish market here. But on any given day, Uchi might also have special cooked dishes with ingredients including gochujang, chili crisp, strawberry XO, chorizo and brown butter hollandaise. And then, of course, there’s what Uchi does with raw fish beyond sushi.
“The real hallmark of Uchi is taking fresh produce and combining it with raw fish and making composed dishes,” Cole says. “We’ll add something, and you’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never had it like this before.’”
One beloved Uchi dish is called hama chili. It’s yellowtail sashimi with orange supreme, ponzu and Thai chiles.
“The bites are so spectacular because of the pops of acid from the fruit with the fresh fish,” Cole says. “And there’s also olive oil and sea salt to make it this perfect bite. I think sushi’s already addictive. So we’re adding these flavors to make it even more addictive, to hopefully make people think they have to come back tomorrow.”
Cole looks around his new 6,000-square-foot restaurant, designed by local studio Ora, and marvels at all the reclaimed wood around him. The wood is rough around the edges, and it makes Cole think about the balance he wants in his restaurant.
“The contrast is what makes it so good,” he says. “It’s like expensive jeans with a cheap T-shirt. White tablecloth is not what we do. It’s more about being accessible, comfortable. You can come to Uchi in shorts if you want. It doesn’t matter. It’s about that level of unexpectedness that, no matter what you wear, how you come, we’re going to try to knock your socks off. It really comes down to the team and the culture. It’s about finding the best possible combinations of things. It’s about doing things organically, things that are very familiar but also things that are kind of exotic.”
Uchi’s team has been hitting the Santa Monica Farmers Market to find vegetables for a seasonal tempura that’s served with a Sichuan sauce. The kitchen has been playing around with dishes like karaage that features maple syrup and caviar. For dessert, there are crowd-pleasers like coconut tapioca (with pickled blueberry, hazelnut and lychee sorbet) and warm banana cake (with chicory, buckwheat and white coffee ice cream).
Cole knows that L.A. is an extremely competitive market for Japanese restaurants, but he’s confident in Uchi. After all, he’s brought over an all-star team from all five cities where he already runs successful restaurants to open Uchi Los Angeles.
“Are we worried about competition? I don’t think so,” Cole says. “I think sushi is addictive. I eat it almost every day. So if we do a decent enough job, people will come to our place, too. It’s all about being part of the sushi community.”
Uchi L.A., located at 9001 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, opens December 7, 2023. The restaurant will be open Sunday-Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday from 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.