Japanese-French fusion? Only in Midtown.
Umai Restaurant, which specializes in Japanese-French cuisine, is an exotic addition to the restaurant row that begins at Overton Square and stretches west. The space was home to the original Harry's On Teur, then On Teur 61, which closed last year. Umai's quirky fusion of casual and fine dining, in fact, makes it a natural for Midtown.
Umai's chef/owner is Ken Lumpkin, best known for sushi: He developed the original menu for Do (Beauty Shop's sushi-oriented sister eatery), and later worked as executive chef at Sekisui Pacific Rim, then as executive sushi chef for Bluefin. But don't look for sushi rolls at Umai, at least not for now. The menu is solidly based in the classical tradition, borrowing substantially from Japanese cuisine and relying on fresh ingredients. Lumpkin (who grew up in his Japanese mother's kitchen) seems to be enjoying a break from sushi at the moment, but plans to add a sushi bar next spring.
The restaurant has two distinct rooms. You walk into the tiny tangerine-painted main room, with its bar tables and a wall made tropical with cane. There's a bar, but instead of a bartender behind it, there's the kitchen, complete with flaming burners and chefs at work. To the left is the larger dining room, which with its tin roof and unpainted wood is reminiscent of a rustic cabin porch. That is, until you spot the urban-aggressive Japanese graffiti mural along one wall. Still, it's a big improvement over the space's previous incarnation as a deck with a tent. There's also an outdoor deck on the front of the restaurant.
The dining room may look like a country porch, but the cooking is sophisticated.Among the appetizers we tried during our visits, two were standouts. Mussels in sour miso broth consisted of flavorful small black mussels in a lovely sweet-sour-salty broth, served with spears of crisp Sardinian flatbread. The spinach gyoza, dumplings with a beautiful mottled jade surface, were filled with deliciously savory minced Asian mushrooms and complemented with a citrusy kefir lime butter sauce.
Lobster Americana consisted of a nice fresh artichoke heart in a flavorful lobster sauce Americana and a few morsels of lobster meat. Two other starters weren't particularly memorable: The tender salted ribs with lemon-grass barbecue were more bland than salty, the marinated tuna rare and a bit salty.
From the salad menu we tried the intriguingly named Grandma Japanese hot beef salad, marinated beef sirloin with a salty, gamy flavor served over a generous plateful of mixed greens and dressed with a ginger-tinged vinaigrette. The soup of the day during our second visit was tomato vegetable, a very subtle and refreshingly light pureed vegetable soup.
The best of the entrees was the roasted butterflied Arkansas-raised quail, which was tender and sweet, with a brown sauce of veal stock and smoked shallots. It was served over herb barley, nice al dente grains that added plenty of textural interest. Also delicious was the meltingly tender pan-seared salmon, thickly browned on one side and served with very fresh-tasting, uncluttered mashed potatoes, chunky house-made butternut chutney, and grilled mushrooms. The veal was very tender, cooked to order and served with mashed sweet potatoes, roasted green beans, and veal stock. Our least favorite was the pork loin stuffed with goat cheese: Tough and dull.
On both visits we had the fish poached in lemon grass court bouillon, and each time it was a different experience. The first time it was a bit alarming when the fish arrived, given its very fishy aroma. But those worries proved unfounded, as the mahi was fresh-tasting, tender, cooked to medium. It came with steamed choi sum (an Asian vegetable with flavor like broccoli) atop lovely black Thai rice, with a zingy curry carrot broth. The next time halibut was the poached fish, yet it was cooked to a rubbery texture that even the rice and sauce could not completely redeem.
For dessert, we found the elegant little round apple pie with Jack Daniels caramel glaze to be buttery and delectable, the caramel sauce sumptuous and rich but with little trace of Jack Daniels. The chocolate pot de créme was richly chocolate, the texture more eggy and spongy than the smooth, more liquid texture this dessert usually has. The Grand Marnier soufflé with sweet raspberry sauce was light, subtle, sweet, large enough to share. Both arrived in touch-here-for-blisters hot dishes.
The wine list at Umai is short (about 25 bottles), quirky, and very reasonably priced ($20 to $35 a bottle). It includes a Marietta Old Vines red and Lolonis Ladybug white for $25 per bottle. All except a few are available by the glass.
I'm sorry to say that service during our first visit was quite flawed from beginning to end. When we arrived, we had to wait about 10 minutes for our table despite making reservations. Once seated, things started off well enough, with menus and water and our bottle of wine. But it took 30 minutes to get our appetizers, then another healthy wait for our entrees (and still one of us got the wrong dish). A major gaffe occurred when one of us asked for more decaf coffee. The server brought a fresh pot, filled that person's cup, then ignored two other half-empty decaf cups at our table.
Service was much better the second time, as well it should be, since the restaurant was not very full. Still, it was adequate, nothing more, although throughout our meal the server was quite personable and polite.
Umai is an intriguing addition to the Midtown restaurant scene, and like Café 1912 and Harry's Detour, delivers excellent food for the money. The juxtaposition of the tin roof with the graffiti-style mural, the European culinary style with Japanese ingredients, and the casual aspects versus fine-dining elements such as the amuse bouche at the beginning of the meal — all of these add to the odd charm of the place.
At its best, the food sparkles with distinctive yet harmonious flavors, as is the case with the quail, the poached mahi with black Thai rice, the gyoza and the mussels. Nothing was terrible, yet some of the dishes, despite the subtleties and intricate preparation, came off as dull. I'm thinking of the pork, and several of the appetizers. Dining at Umai requires a spirit of forgiveness toward the amateurish service, but that may be worth cultivating in order to enjoy its funky ambiance and bargain-priced fresh, Japanese-infused food.
Umai 2015 Madison 405-4241
For more information, please see our Dining Guide