You know the scene in every teen movie where the popular jock struts down the crowded halls of his high school, waving in one direction, winking in the other, and high-fiving his buddies while a British New Wave song provides the bouncy soundtrack? That’s what it’s like watching chef Neal Brown work the sushi bar just inside the door of his new SoBro showpiece, Ukiyo. He can barely compose a nigiri without someone interrupting him on the way in or out to tell him that everything he does is magic, magic, magic.
“Hey, Neal—six thumbs up,” one customer calls over as he guides his two young sons toward the exit, past the midcentury wood-frame chairs arranged under glowing feather-boa pendants.
Another diner lingers at the live-edge wood counter to talk shop and gush about Ukiyo’s painstakingly constructed sushi that covers the spread, from bright, fleshy hamachi presented in its most natural state to “designer rolls” like spicy salmon with nasturtium and crab oil, and delicate ribbons of kampachi brightened with slivered apple and lemon. “Was that your giant order of nigiri and sashimi that I sent out earlier?” Brown asks the guy. “That was impressive.”
Toward the end of the evening, a chef from a nearby restaurant shows up at the host stand and gives Brown a subtle, knowing bro nod. “He works at … umm.” Brown struggles under his breath while he wrangles rice before admitting that he can’t remember.
Let’s just stay that kind of blank is rarely drawn when it comes to recognizing Ukiyo’s head honcho, a seasoned veteran of the local dining scene who learned the finer points of sticky rice during the more than five years he worked at H2O Sushi in Broad Ripple. Brown went on to open his own place, L’Explorateur, Indy’s advance guard for brainy nouvelle cuisine that sent out spicy little anti-griddled fudge pops with the check. He explored (perfected?) blistered-crust pizza at Pizzology and, later, Italian-style wood-fired cooking at Stella. He offered a downtown tiffin lunch-delivery service called Brown Bag at one point. And his Libertine Liquor Bar introduced speakeasy swagger to parched after-work imbibers at the very moment when eyedropper mixology became fashionable in town. People know who Neal Brown is, and for many of Indy’s food-obsessed, he is the gateway chef for accessible high-minded cooking.
So people might also just be tickled to see him here, in the flesh, after his trail had gone a bit cold. Brown teased Ukiyo for at least a year before finally opening this Japanese-inspired concept in January. Having originally slated it for a small stand-alone building in Fountain Square, he switched gears when Recess owner Greg Hardesty threw in the prix-fixe towel in early 2017. That College Avenue space’s clean, cool shell translated easily to Brown’s idea for a subdued evening spot where diners can build meals around Japanese small plates like chicken hearts on a stick, aromatic miso soup mellowed with fermented garlic that tastes like a funky pickle, and puffy octopus dumplings scattered with dancing katsuobushi—dried and fermented fish flakes that become reanimated in the steam coming off the dumpling broth. Fried chunks of karaage chicken are sweetened with honeycomb and sprinkled with matcha powder, a sophisticated chicken nugget plucked from a deep bowl. The coveted uni toast makes an in-season appearance, punctuated with trout roe, chervil, and lava salt. Soupy rice porridge stocked with scallops and vegetables warms you to the soul.
Brown narrates the parade of sushi, working slowly and precisely as if he is doing the voice-over for his very own cooking hour.
The restaurant is actually divided into three sections. A larger dining room bustles in the evening, with servers whisking out plated menu items, while the other end of the space caters to a lunch crowd ordering from Ukiyo’s pop-up Moon Rabbit Ramen menu. The sushi bar sits right in the center. Think of it as the main stage, where you can reserve a seat for the prepaid $85 omakase multi-course tasting menu with wine and sake pairings. In doing so, you embark on a guided sliver-by-sliver tour of the fish, led by Brown himself, who hands each piece over the bar accompanied by some equally enticing narrative. (Omakase translates roughly to “I’ll leave it up to you,” with the diner placing trust in the chef’s hands.) The horseradish is freshly grated, not the green wasabi variety. Brown instructed me to add it to the soy sauce right away if I wanted, before the flavor faded—and to feel free to use my hands, to go ahead and reject that silly Americanized affectation.
The bites started with the leanest tuna, which tastes almost clean and crisp compared to the pieces that followed, growing progressively rich and buttery, first streaked with fat and then layered with it. Otoro tuna, the fattiest of the fatty, nearly separates with each striation, something I might never have noticed if Brown had not pointed it out as he placed the piece atop the sushi bar for me to eat. I swear I saw it take one last sigh as it settled onto its pad of pressed rice. Eating sushi this way makes you slow down, spend some quality time with your food. Admire it, even.
There was a darling nori hand roll filled with preserved bamboo shoots, salmon roe spilling out the top—a snappy, fishy bouquet. Brown offers a smoked farm-raised catfish to replace the over-fished unagi, and this version has that same bacon-of-the-sea meaty sweetness that makes me check its box on my sushi card every time. At one point, the chef handed me a lidded white box about the size of the one Richard Gere gave Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (oh, blush), but instead of a ruby-and-diamond necklace, this one contained something nearly as precious: a thick slab of warm Japanese milk bread—Texas Toast’s delicate cousin trimmed to fit inside half of the box—and a scoop of crab tartare filling out the other half, like the most amazing, decadent deconstructed crab cake.
Brown narrates the parade of sushi, working slowly and precisely as if he is doing the voice-over for his very own cooking hour. Why not? This is, after all, The Neal Brown Show. And people are happily tuning in to Indy’s own version of David Chang, churning out food that is too stupidly good to be called
delicious but rather duhlicious—or, if you will, Momofuking good.
4907 N. College Ave., 317-384-1048, Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5 p.m.–10 p.m.
Chicken karaage and rice porridge with a board of nigiri. Puffed-rice pudding for dessert. Skip the cocktails in favor of one of the craft sakes.
Sushi and small plates
Small plates $4–$13, rice dishes $10–$12, nigiri and sashimi $5–$22, specialty rolls $7–$21