Denver's LoHi neighborhood doesn't lack for first-rate restaurants, and as of early August, the rich just got richer.
That's when Uncle opened, a pan-Asian place where the fusion of Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean and Vietnamese foods create that happiest of culinary events: dishes that are bigger than the sum of their already considerable parts.
Uncle is helmed by chef-owner Tommy Lee and a crew of young people who know how to cook and have fun on the line, plus work a room.
The restaurant's name derives from the Chinese term of respect for an elder, which acknowledges their wisdom, experience and ability to do something — putting on their shoes, for example — without tweeting about it or posting a Facebook update every 47 seconds.
It's a sleek, contemporary room, somewhat spartan in the decor. Floor seating is a blend of small two- and four-top tables, and the perky host is quick to seat you, even though the restaurant fills up quickly.
If you opt to sit at the bar, an energetic staff is quick to engage customers and explain what they're doing, choreographing their plating in front of gleaming stainless-steel cooktops and a long splash-wall of eggshell-white subway tile.
The kitchen has a bit of fun with its dishes, too.
One of the September menus featured "crab tots." (Hey, it made me grin.) Fingerling potatoes ($6) were also rather novel: multicolored oval spuds sliced lengthwise, roasted and served atop a smear of sour cream and housemade chorizo crumbled and crisped like bacon bits and topped with a cilantro sprig.
My wife took one bite and nailed it: "You know what this is? It's like a deconstructed stuffed potato."
Two dishes vied as my favorite small plates.
Olathe corn ($6) in a shallow white bowl bore a red-orange lacing of kimchi butter, which added a savory contrast to the sweet niblets. The corn was topped with pebbly cotija, the popular white cheese from Mexico. Tempura-crusted calamari, flash-fried to feathery lightness, were plated with roasted shishito peppers dusted with red chile powder. A lime wedge and ramekin of zippy sriracha-spiked mayo came on the side.
The cumin lamb ribs ($9) sounded a bit better than they ate. They didn't lack for tenderness or flavor, with the dish enhanced by jalapeño, red onion, cilantro and smoked salt. Unfortunately, this particular batch bore that somewhat gamey taste more associated with mutton than lamb. Granted, that could have been an anomaly of the shipment, but still.
Brussels sprouts ($6) were a big winner, halved and fried in nuoc cham, the Vietnamese fish sauce, and finished with peanuts. The dish was a fine balance of sweet and savory, with just enough give to the sprouts.
Sesame pancakes ($7) were eggy crepes packed with duck, plum sauce and scallion, a mix of depth and lightness.
Uncle offers four versions of steamed buns, including a wild-card creation of crispy bass with remoulade and Old Bay seasoning, sort of a Mile High shout-out to Baltimore.
We opted for the pork belly bun ($7) version with hoisin sauce, scallion and cucumber. The pork was crisp and luscious, but could have benefited from more cukes and some additional crunch, maybe pickled veggies such as slivered carrots and jicama.
Two noodles bowls made us happy.
Spicy sesame noodles ($12) came chilled, the crinkled pasta laden with shredded chicken, cashews, spinach and sliced Gala apples. It was a fine combo of flavor, texture and color, one of those dishes that bridged the warm summer with the coming cool nights of autumn.
We also enjoyed the chile mazemen ramen ($14). The noodles were slick with a clingy sauce of ground pork, sichuan peppers and lemon, arriving with a poached egg on top. (Free range, and yes, it does make a difference, to you and the yardbird.) Punched with a fork, the yolk oozed into the noodles, creating a dish that was hyper-moist but not soupy.
The beverage list is compact but smart, with interesting options. Along with some Front Range craft beers, there are Asian imports such as Biyagama Lion Stout from Sri Lanka and Hitachino Nest White Ale from Japan. Two ciders are also offered, including Sir Perry Pear Cider, a slightly sweet and refreshing import from England.
A half-dozen chilled sakes are on the menu, too, and non-imbibers can opt for the Boylan's Red Birch Soda.
Uncle is a fine addition to the LoHi restaurant scene, and Lee and his crew should feel proud.
William Porter: 303-954-1877, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/williamporterdp
Asian Fusion. 2215 W. 32nd Ave., 303-433-3263, uncledenver.tumblr.com
Atmosphere: Hip, casual
Service: Fast, knowledgeable
Beverages: Beer, cider, wine, sake
Plates: Small plates, $5-$8; large plates, $12-$15
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
Details: Street parking
Our star system:
**: Very Good
Stars reflect the dining reviewer's overall reaction to the restaurant's food, service and atmosphere.