“Kill your darlings” goes one storied bit of advice to writers: What you think is your cleverest work may not thrill your readers. That adage must be tough to accept in the restaurant business, where long-running successes like Clio—the Back Bay restaurant that launched chef/owner Ken Oringer into Boston’s culinary firmament nearly 20 years ago—are exceedingly rare. Yet Oringer did kill Clio late last year, reasoning that its tweezery, avant-garde blend of New French and Japanese was too fussy for 2016. In its place, Oringer and his executive chef/partner Tony Messina have combined elements of Uni, the luxury sashimi bar that opened inside Clio in 2002, and the casual, izakaya-inspired dishes that Clio/Uni has served to late-night diners in recent years. The result, now simply called UNI, garners the livelier, hipper feel of its younger siblings Toro and Coppa while retaining elements of the original’s exoticism and pricey glamour.
The redesigned dining room looks fabulous, swapping Clio’s beige tones for clubby dark woods, with enough Japanese accents to save it from luxury-steakhouse mimicry. Hip-hop thumps and throbs at levels that can threaten easy conversation. The central bar, now helmed by Jason Kilgore (ex-Hawthorne), charts a welcome course between the dated vodka drinks that long hobbled Clio and the cerebral chem-lab concoctions of the Todd Maul era. In addition to terrific craft cocktails like the USS Richmond ($13), a rum/cognac punch with port, tea, lemon and prosecco, there’s a goodly selection of sakes (glasses $10-$16, pitchers $30-$35, bottles $28-$349), like the milky, sparkling Hakkaisan ($55/360ml), a junmai ginjo with the crisp austerity of brut Champagne. Sixteen bottled beers ($5-$12, large-format $12-$34) lean toward food-friendly pilsners like Rothaus Tannenzapfle ($8), plus some beer-nerd favorites like the sour Off Color Troublesome gose ($9). Wines include 11 by-the-glass options ($12-$18) and 56 bottles ($42-$220, most under $80).
The old Uni’s elegant menu of sashimi, much of it flown in from Japan, is largely intact. You can still order lubina ($16), translucent, lavender-pink slices of raw sea bass over green charmoula, dotted with raisins, gremolata and tiny flowers. There’s the familiar spicy tuna and foie gras tataki ($22), a bit of Peruvian/Japanese fusion that Uni featured long before its current trendiness: two stacks of seared tuna, strawberry and rare foie gras atop a graceful squiggle of aji amarillo. The signature smoked-uni spoon survives, a literal spoonful of smoked urchin, quail-egg yolk and osetra caviar. Close your eyes, savor for a moment, gulp: There goes 16 bucks. For a longer-lasting small plate, you might find a special of chilled percebes ($22), steamed gooseneck barnacles to be wrestled from gnarly-looking shells, peeled of their tough siphon covers and then dipped in miso butter like miniature steamers from Mars. Sushi chef Akira Sugimoto (ex-O Ya) also now offers beautiful nigiri, like shima aji ($10/two pieces), subtle and mild jack topped with pickled rhubarb on a pad of delicately seasoned sushi rice; sake ($8/two pieces), high-quality farmed salmon with gochujang and pickled beet; and superb makimono options like crunchy unagi roll ($16/four pieces), sweet-glazed grilled eel rolled in rice and nori with crispy tempura flakes.
Beyond nigiri and maki, UNI’s more significant departure lies in its broad menu of small plates; one can now dine well but much less extravagantly here. Bargain-priced specials include an oversize hand roll of grilled tuna sinew ($6) dressed with pickled chilies, like a delectable, briny, insane-looking savory ice cream cone. Late-night Clio favorites are now everyday plates, like a gorgeous bowl of XO squid ramen ($11) with great noodles in a rich, murky miso soy broth, and the Berkshire pork belly steam bun ($6), like a sweet/savory/spicy taco on puffy steamed bread. Grilled snacks include Thai pork neck yakitori ($8), a chewy ribbon threaded on a skewer, and the luxurious king crab yakitori ($20): one fat, half-shelled leg drenched in butter and dusted with acerbic dried black lime. Vietnamese bologna banh mi tartine ($7) nails the flavors of the iconic street-food sandwich in miniaturized form. Rare misses include takoyaki ($10), gooily underdone octopus fritters overpowered by a thick snowfall of bonito flakes, and Asian cheesy corn ($10), an off-the-cob version of Toro’s elotes that tastes plain odd served on shrimp crackers. These feel like blips amid 40 small-plate options that include seared Korean ricecakes ($13) with kalbi oxtail and kimchee butter, tenderly chewy, fatty and deeply satisfying, and crowd-pleasing spicy pork ma po tofu lettuce wraps ($10) with peanut sauce, light and crisp and messy. Order mostly from this section, and UNI descends from the rarified sphere of the city’s priciest sushi/sashimi restaurants to something mere mortals can afford on weeknights.
Servers, bartenders and the sociable cooks working the sashimi and sushi bars that bookend the restaurant are, to a person, extremely well-versed and enthusiastic about the long, intricate menu, an essential baseline when two pieces of real-Wagyu nigiri cost $30 and the omakase runs $125/head. Credit Oringer for having the audacity to mostly leave behind the 20th-century fine-dining sensibility that put him on the map, preserving just enough to satisfy his well-heeled regulars while embracing a younger, more frugal, more casual audience. That had to be a scary leap; UNI mostly sticks the landing.
-Vietnamese bologna banh mi tartine
-Berkshire pork belly steam buns
-Seared Korean ricecake
-XO squid ramen
-Shima aji nigiri
-Crunchy unagi makimono
-Grilled tuna sinew hand roll
Hours: Sun.-Wed., 5:30-10 pm, Thu.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 pm (limited menu till 1:30 am) Reservations: Yes Parking: Valet, metered street parking, nearby private garages Liquor: Full bar
UNI 370 Comm. Ave., Boston (617-536-7200) uni-boston.com