Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse sits across the street and adjacent to the Orange Peel in downtown Asheville. You know the spot, the one where it’s hard to keep up with what restaurant is currently there.
Loosely translated into English, Ukiah means, well, Ukiah. There really isn’t a definitive meaning to the word. Look at it backwards though, and it reads Haiku, and therein lies your meaning: structure and balance turned upside down, as the restaurant describes it.
More notable than the name are the credentials of the executive chef behind Ukiah. Dip into his resume and names such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Eric Ripert are impressively listed, among others.
The food is said to be inspired by the simplicity of Japanese soul food with influences from American BBQ. If you are having trouble visualizing what that would be, don’t think pulled pork tossed around by a chef on a hibachi. As entertaining as that sounds, the concept here is much more unique.
At its heart, the menu offerings are shareable, though you could easily find a dish or two to keep to yourself, such as one of the ramen or hot pot bowls. Otherwise, the dishes are small, and multiple items will be needed to feed your party.
Snacks kick off the menu. Think edamame or grilled shishito peppers, those items you grab up while sipping a cocktail. We merge into “crunchy and munchy” from there, only a few deep on this menu section, but look out for beech mushroom tempura or karrage chicken with Kyoto Carolina BBQ.
The menu also has a raw section with several items. Pick a classic oyster or get a little adventurous with a Wagyu tataki.
Is your head spinning with all the options? I haven’t even listed half the menu sections. They continue with fresh and light, dumplings and buns, sharing is caring, sticks and stuff, big and bowlsy and veggies.
As you examine the menu, most items continue in theme, a crossbreed of Japanese and American barbecue. Meats, seafood and vegetables are all well individually represented, making it easy to please a variety of eating styles and requirements.
One dish that came recommended was the rock shrimp on the crunchy and munchy menu. These shrimp, easily a play on firecracker shrimp, are rock shrimp tempura fried to perfection; dress them in a chili butter sauce. A slice of charred lemon comes on the side with large creamy pieces of gorgonzola in the mix. While not the most obvious of dishes with Japanese influences, the tempura batter and the variety of chilis in the chili butter lean toward the answer. At only $12 for a reasonably sized portion, this is an easy plate to order.
My second dish, the crispy baby back ribs, from the sharing is caring menu offered a half of a rack of ribs for $18, perfectly closing the $30 budget. The ribs come pre-sliced so, if you’re sharing, you don’t have to worry about playing tug-of-war with your dining partner for your fair portion of meat.
The ribs are yakinuku style, which refers to grilled meats. As such, expect a firm bite of rib versus a fall off the bone consistency you might be used to at a local barbecue restaurant. I’d be happy if this rib met somewhere more in the middle. That said, the outer crust of this rib is amazing, deeply charred and crisp without tasting burnt. Nothing else is found on this dish except a garnish of sesame and chopped scallion; it’s all about the rib.
The ribs swim in a pool of sauce so deep brown it’s hard to see where the sauce ends and the ember of the crust begins. Really, the crust and the sauce are what make this dish. The flavor of soy sauce pervades, but there is notably subtle sweetness and an umami perfection, easily a nod to their moniker of structure and balance. I’ll leave you with a word of warning. Don’t order this dish if you’re worried about double dipping. One bite in, and you know it’s going to happen.
Ukiah Japanese Smokehouse
828-470-7480, www.ukiahrestaurant.com, 121 Biltmore Avenue.
Atmosphere: Refined casual. Bar seating, indoor and outdoor seating are all available.
What to try: Though hard to recommend just one dish here, the crispy baby back ribs combine the Japanese yakinuku style of preparation with a much beloved American BBQ cut. This order is worth it just for the sauce.
Beverage notes: Cocktails, beer and wine.
Bottom line: At its roots, Ukiah is a fusion of Japanese and American BBQ. But to call it fusion would date the cuisine back to the early 00’s where tapas restaurants would use the term as a license to serve basically whatever they wished. The menu at Ukiah is more focused, more cohesive, and much more desirable than some of those munchy driven menus of 15 years ago. This is a modern mashup of cuisines done well with a more current approach of dish sharing.
Matthew DeRobertis is a chef, writer and father to a kid who loves food more than her dog. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.