Here’s a story to commemorate March Madness. Before joining James Beard awardee Tyson Cole’s Hai Hospitality restaurant group as the chef de cuisine of Uchi Denver, Brandon Brumback had already worked with a number of the nation’s most notable chefs and restaurateurs — from Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Bouchon) to Chicago’s Curtis Duffy, (Grace), Paul Kahan (Blackbird), and Grant Achatz (The Alinea Group). But for all his impressive industry connections, it was a sports phenom that initially brought him and Cole together: Kevin Durant.
As Kansas City native Brumback tells it, “When I was 16, two of my buddies and I skipped school and drove to Austin to watch Durant play at UT against the Jayhawks.” Then a fledgling chef, he wanted to explore the city’s culinary offerings, but “my buddies weren’t into sushi, so I went ate at Uchi by myself,” he says. “I sat in front of Tyson as a solo diner and had an amazing experience. I think I was there for three hours. The conversation and the interaction I had with him made an awesome memory for me.”
Several years later, having made his mark on the Chicago dining scene, Brumback was looking for a change when he came across the Denver job opening. And though his background wasn’t in Asian cuisine, his teenage experience at Uchi drew him to it: “I thought I might as well take a shot.”
It turned out to be a Durant-worthy slam dunk. “His résumé is spectacular; his palate is awesome,” Cole enthuses. “It’s a challenge when you’re walking into a restaurant that’s already established and having to make food that fits in this box. But he was ready for it, and he’s taken a shine to it.”
Denverites have likewise taken quite a shine to the first location of Uchi outside of Texas, a destination for progressive Japanese dining since the day it opened in RiNo last October. “We didn’t know what to expect, but people have really accepted us,” Cole says. “It’s been amazing for us, and we’re really excited to be here.” Eater spoke with Cole and Brumback about some of their biggest hits to date.
Snow Crab Sunomono
Brumback was inspired by a Japanese staple, seaweed salad, to create “something refreshing that diners could start off their meal with at a lower price point.” But the result is hardly so traditional, according to Cole: “It really shows Brandon’s acumen and his experience as a chef, because he thinks out of the box.”
His use of four to five different types of seaweed is just the beginning. To “take it in a French direction,” Brumback explains, “We roast pineapple in butter with some aromatics — pink peppercorn, lemon zest — for about an hour, constantly basting it with fresh butter so that it never actually blackens. Then, while it’s still hot, we submerge it in a simple syrup with a lot of saffron and green cardamom. So it’s a pretty spice-forward, but not spicy, dish,” thanks to the “cooling effect” of velvety avocado mousse and the mild sweetness of lightly steamed, olive oil–seasoned snow crab. But wait, there’s more: A bit of pickled kohlrabi and a garnish of pink peppercorns, Thai basil, and viola flowers that come from the hydroponic greenhouse on the rooftop, as do many of the herbs Brumback uses. “They’re just a lot of fun, really flavorful, and we only have to go about 100 feet to get them.”
“It’s kind of our signature to take raw fish and combine it with fresh fruit,” says Cole. Case in point: this top-selling tuna dish, which he calls “very refreshing, very high-acid, and very delicious.” Brumback credits head sushi chef Kelsey Urbanczyk with its creation; as a San Antonio native, he says, “she has this love for peppers,” incorporating them in the form of jalapeño-seasoned panko crumbs, poblano purée, and red chili oil while balancing their heat with Asian pear, compressed with a touch of lemon oil and simple syrup.
Pork Rib Karaage
Pear also figures into this dish, which Brumback introduced “for our clientele in the Denver market who want a bigger meat course.” After braising in a broth containing black vinegar, black garlic, and lemongrass for about three hours, the pork is dredged in cornstarch, fried, and finally coated in a sauce made by reducing the braising liquid with black-garlic molasses until “it almost resembles a Kansas City–stule barbecued rib,” he says. Finally, he adds scallions, pickled fennel branches, cilantro, jalapeños, and, for now, sliced Anjou pear— though “the fruit on the dish will rotate with the seasons.”
Speaking of heartier proteins, Colorado lamb was a no-brainer for the Uchi team — though what Brumback does with the shoulder is plenty thoughtful. First, he braises it with truffle, garlic, fennel, and Thai basil for about six hours; then he reduces the liquid into a sauce with more truffle jus and date vinegar for what he calls a “lacquered, sweet-and-sour glaze.”
That hint of Chinese influence is underscored by the jade rice beneath the lamb, which Brumback describes as a broken grain: “It’s snapped or chipped so the starch is exposed, then dyed in bamboo juice to give it that jade color. When it cooks, the color kind of mellows and looks pastel.” To intensify the hue, Brumback cooks the rice in still more truffle jus and chicken stock, “and then at the very end we add a good amount of butter and a really rich Thai basil puree.” Cole compares the “super-popular” result to congee, adding with a laugh that “every time I’m in Denver, I eat this dish at least once a day.”
Chocolate Popcorn Okashi
Dessert is an afterthought at most stateside Japanese restaurants, but at Uchi, “it’s been a focus from the beginning,” says Cole. “It rounds out the whole experience.” He calls Hai Hospitality’s head of pastry Ariana Quant, “the most talented pastry chef I’ve ever met in my life.” She initially came up with this dessert for the New Year’s Eve menu, but according to Brumback, “everyone loved it so much we decided to put it on the main menu.”
It starts with a black-pepper macaron made of almond flour, whose crunchy exterior and soft interior offers “really nice contrast in a single bite.” The cookie’s filled with a chocolate mousse that’s unusual for its high percentage of lightly caramelized white chocolate: “When you think of chocolate you’re typically thinking something dark brown, right? This is light in color, light in flavor, light in sweetness. You can really taste the actual cocoa berry.” “Super-delicious” popcorn- and coffee-infused ice cream, plus a sprinkle of caramel corn and a dusting of coffee powder, round it all out. It’s just the treat for celebrating your winning March Madness bracket picks.
• All Coverage of Uchi [EDEN]