Exclusive first look: Uncle opens this week in Lower Highland
Months ago, in March, when we first reported that a restaurant called Uncle was opening in the Lower Highland neighborhood, we -- and a few of our commenters -- collectively scratched our heads. "I've heard it will be a Asian noodle bar type place, but with a name like Uncle, who knows?" mused one commenter.
Uncle, as it turns out, is, indeed an Asian noodle bar, or as owner/chef Tommy Lee would prefer, an "Asian comfort food concept with American influences."
And the name -- Uncle -- makes perfect sense when you consider Lee's upbringing and background. "My family is from Hong Kong, and there, and in China and many other Asian cultures," he explains "you call people "Aunt' and 'Uncle' who aren't necessarily related to you, but who you respect. it's a formality," he adds.
It also stuck because of the people, he says, "who I've learned from -- people who have influenced me in my life, and my friends, who use it in a loving way."
Lee, who admits that he's wanted to open a restaurant since college, will introduce the neighborhood to Uncle on Wednesday or Thursday of this week after a series of soft openings, and the space, minimalist and serene, with blond woods and an exhibition kitchen lined with stools that overlook all the action, is exactly the kind of storefront he was looking for. "I wanted a small and manageable space, and while I looked in other neighborhoods, it seemed like Highland had the best clientele for what I wanted to do, plus this is an area that really supports independent businesses," he says.
And while his concise menu, which is still evolving, definitely leans toward the cuisine of Asia -- ramen, udon, steamed buns, rice bowls and sesame pancakes -- he stresses that while "it's rooted in traditional Asian ideas, I'm also emphasizing modern techniques."
"The departure point for me was Momofuko in New York," notes Lee. "I've been there a few times, and it really struck a chord with me, and since I'm Asian-American, and love food and cooking, I thought, 'I can do that in Denver.'"
And Lee stresses that Chinese cooking, which appears deceptively simple to most people, is anything but. "I ate Chinese food all the time while I was growing up, and I always thought it was so easy to cook, but the truth, is that it's just as involved as traditional French and Italian cuisines," he says, adding, too, that "you have to balance the flavors."
He'll pair his dishes with a beverage program that includes a half-dozen beers and ciders, wines, sake and a cocktail list that's still being developed. "Like the menu, the wine and beer list is focused and fits our concept, and we're still working on the the cocktails and increasing our sake selection," says Lee, admitting that he and his crew are "still feeling a few things out to see what works."
Uncle will initially be open for dinner only Monday through Saturday, although Lee says that his goal is to open seven days a week for lunch and dinner; he's contemplating adding late-night hours, too. But first, he notes, "we want to get things right when we open before we spread our wings."
I ducked into Uncle over the weekend to get a glimpse of what Lee has in store, the photos of which are on the following pages. We've also included a sneak peek of the menu.