Once you get Michael Zito talking fish, he won’t stop. And that’s OK, because not only is Zito the sushi chef and owner at Uki Uki, a new tiki bar in downtown Eugene, but he knows his fish — from muscle striation to the intricate branches of the fishy family tree.
Early in 2019, Zito and his wife and partner Sophie Dixon opened Uki Uki, a tiki-themed sushi bar, on Pearl Street in downtown. The couple grew up in Eugene, and in high school Zito was an apprentice sushi chef at Bamboo, a sushi restaurant formerly in the 5th Street Market.
The couple lived in San Francisco for a time. While there, Zito spent time not only in the kitchen-trenches of San Francisco’s international food scene, but also in the front offices. Dixon worked front-of-house, while completing a degree in Japanese history.
In 2016, the couple moved back to town. Zito worked at Mame, a tiny and much-beloved sushi place in the Whiteaker. Eventually, Mame closed in search of a bigger location. Mame’s Chef Taro Kobayashi has since opened Akira on Mill Street. Zito and Dixon took the opportunity to strike out on their own.
The interior of Uki Uki, designed by Dixon, who also runs front-of-house operations, has a fun tiki flair — a style the partners fell in love with while living in California. The floral wallpaper is a reproduction 1950s design, I’m told. Dixon scored it online.
I don’t want to give Zito’s sushi short shrift, because it’s divine. Dense and pillowy, at times floral, at other times fruity, with a just-right balance of erotic ocean funk. Zito’s philosophy about sushi is one of endless possibility, he says. Thirty or 40 bucks gets you a sizeable sampler of what Zito is making that day, and you can order fruity tiki drinks from the bar.
Some of Uki Uki’s menu items (the spicy confit octopus, for example — made from olive oil poached octopus, roasted potatoes, Marcona almonds, and wasabi vinaigrette) is as influenced by Zito’s experience with French and Spanish cooking as by Japanese cuisine.
But what I really must get to before my word count runs out is Uki Uki’s okonomiyaki waffle, a riff on Japanese street food, this time on a waffle when usually served on a pancake. An okonomiyaki waffle is like a Japanese analog to sweet and savory chicken and waffles, this time with delectable and spicy tones of the sea rather than the barnyard.
The dish is made from a mixed variety fish, cabbage, house furikake, QP mayo (a smooth, creamy mayonnaise popular in Japan, made with rice vinegar instead of distilled vinegar) and sriracha.
At Uki Uki, the okonomiyaki is served with papery flakes of bonito on top, a fish related to the mackerel. When hot, the wispy flakes flutter and dance, as if dozens of butterflies have alighted upon your food.
It was so good, I ordered another serving to go, and rushed home to show my family the delightful magic trick before the bonito cooled down.
Uki Uki is open 5 to 10 pm Wednesday and Thursday, 5 to 11 pm Friday and Saturday and 5 to 9 pm Sunday, at 901 Pearl Street in Eugene. For more information search Uki Uki on Facebook.