Rain fell outside, but inside Uki Uki, soft pink lights illuminated a tropical paradise, complete with bamboo structures and plants covering the walls.
The restaurant, which opened Jan. 1, is an eccentric mix between a fine-dining sushi restaurant and casual tiki bar. It serves $30 to $40 chef’s choice nigiri plates, a small selection of a la carte rolls, hot plates and cocktails.
Uki Uki is chef Michael Zito’s first restaurant. The kitchen staff consists of only three people. Zito makes the nigiri. His apprentice Aidan James makes the sushi rolls. Cook Mark Brauer makes the hot food.
He chose to open a tiki bar because they generally have welcoming atmospheres and diverse clientele. Zito said that most bars have a certain type of crowd; he wanted a space where people from all different walks of life would come to eat.
Tiki bars generally serve food from all different Asian cuisines. This gives him free reign to serve whatever he wants at the restaurant.
He values collaboration and dialogue in the kitchen, and often lets James and Brauer choose what dishes they make, even though they haven’t been cooking for as long as him.
“There’s a lot creative freedom, which is really awesome,” said James. Zito said he likes to give his cooks ownership over their food, because he knows that it helps make the job rewarding and accelerates their growth as chefs.
Even for a tiki bar, Zito admits, sushi is not normal fair. But Zito isn’t interested in normal. He doesn’t want to make the same food served at every other sushi restaurant in town.
He attributes his unusual ideas to his unusual resume. Zito made sushi with Taro Kobayashi at the Eugene restaurant Mame, which closed last year. In the Bay Area, he worked as a sous chef at a French restaurant. He was also the executive chef at a Spanish-Moroccan restaurant and a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco.
All this experience shows in Uki Uki’s food. For example, Zito makes nigiri with fish marinated with roasted beets, blackberry and yuzu kosho, a fermented condiment made with yuzu rind, chili pepper and salt. This eclectic mix of flavors draws on different cuisines, and couldn’t be found at any other sushi restaurant.
He also has been fermenting a hazelnut miso in the kitchen for the last few months. Zito said he wants miso soup at his restaurant but refuses to buy normal, boring miso from a store.
With all these novel flavors, however, Zito said he follows traditional techniques to cut fish and shape rice. He said there is a right way to make sushi that he reveres and wouldn’t want to change. He consults a book of advice from Jiro Ono of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” whenever he has a question.
Uki Uki’s smaller size allows Zito to freely experiment with his food, but it also gives him tighter control over other important things, such as food waste. Many larger restaurants wind up wasting enormous amounts of food every night, which contributes to the U.S. losing around a third of its edible food every year.
“The idea of all of these people not having enough money to eat, and then you just throwing it in the garbage — it wears on you over the years,” he said. “Not having that, I feel good every single day.”
Having only a few small fridges lets Zito keep track of all the food in the restaurant. He also uses the little pieces of fish he cuts off nigiri in some of his hot plates. And if he can’t sell some of his ingredients, he uses them in meals he cooks for the employees after their shifts.
But he also often buys expensive ingredients for these meals, because he values his tight-knit team.
“This is my family,” he said. “I want to take care of them anyway I can and make them happy.”