THERE'S SOMETHING about giant elaborate fish tanks that make me think of rich asshole boyfriends in '90s movies. My knee-jerk reaction to that particular design aesthetic is always a negative one; I tend not to like whatever person or establishment chose it. But if I linger for a moment, I can't help but get drawn in. Fish, as it turns out, totally captivate me.
My bias when I walked into North Mississippi's new late-night sushi/fried chicken joint was similarly knee-jerk, and the two oversized tanks gave me pause. Uchu is housed in that newish Santa Barbara-y construction just south of Shaver. It's dark and sleek and screams "fusion." There's something about it that's trying a bit too hard; it's a little too Pearl District (an increasingly common ailment in those parts).
But when I let go and take Uchu for what it is, there's actually plenty to enjoy.
The menu has a lot of standard sushi-house fare, but as you might expect from a place that allows raw fish and fried chicken to share top billing, it's got some unorthodox plates as well—pan-seared confit of pork cheek with hot mustard; braised baby bok choy with pickled fennel and currants; roasted shishito peppers.
The sushi itself doesn't quite break into the top tier of Portland restaurants, but they're obviously putting a lot of care and attention into it. The basics are solid—I've had some fantastic salmon and tuna sashimi—and most of the standard rolls are artful and well crafted. Nothing on that side of the menu runs you more than $6.
The specialty rolls section means a jump in price, and, in my experience, inconsistency. Some of these rolls are failures—but it's not for lack of ambition. The BLT ($9) falls prey to the Jelly Belly Imitative Fallacy, wherein one assumes that because they can replicate a particular flavor profile, they should. Salmon bacon, frisée, and cucumber are all well and good. Tomato puree, though not for me, might get a pass. Aioli is a clear misstep.
More successful is the Chang Mai ($12): salmon, which is marinated in coconut curry and dressed with Thai pesto, covers a roll of cucumber, cilantro, pickled mustard greens, and ginger-marinated tomatoes. On the vegetarian side, the Jungle Roll ($11) takes cucumber, mango, and tempura green onions (I hate when tempura batter takes over the whole roll—here it's subtle and adds just the right amount of texture), and tops it with roasted red pepper, avocado, and a slightly fruity cream dressing.
The fried chicken was a pleasant surprise. I was picturing something like katsu or karaage, but what came looked like good ol' American fried chicken. For $4 you get a modest—but not small—wing, leg, thigh, or split breast, each served with pickled mustard greens. The skin is thin and very crisp, and the meat is moist and flavorful. It's not a meal in itself, but makes a great accompaniment to a roll or two.
The ramen ($13) likely isn't going to please dogmatic aficionados—any subtlety in the pork bone broth is masked by huge portions of shredded pork shoulder, mustard greens, onsen tamago (basically a soft-boiled egg), and heaps of veggies—but damn if I didn't enjoy it. The actual noodles are nothing special, but take the bowl on its own terms and you're in for a treat. In fact, that pretty much sums up Uchu.