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Dining Review: Umi Japanese 

Dinner and a show

If you didn't know that Umi is a Japanese restaurant, you might mistake it for a club. The interior is hidden from outside view by mirrored windows. A sign by the door informs patrons that children under 18 aren't allowed in unless accompanied by an adult, and no one under 21 may sit at the bar.

Inside, Umi's décor is futuristic and playfully dramatic; the space is large and dimly lit, accented with neon lighting. Translucent columns, pocketed with bubbles and fluctuating in color, divide teppanyaki tables from the sushi bar and regular seating. A peacock blue, tiled fountain, shaped like a cone, stretches from floor to ceiling. The bar, backlit in neon blue, occupies its own space in a room kitted out with dark woods, red walls, and mod chairs. All of this sets the stage for culinary theatrics. Things are quiet and understated at the sushi bar, but you'll find full-blown Broadway showmanship at the teppanyaki tables.

There are only a handful of seats at the sushi bar; grab one if you can. You can watch one or two chefs skillfully slice through pieces of salmon, tuna, and eel, nimbly wrap seaweed around fillings into a roll, and use soy sauce to delicately paint a branch on a plate to accent an assortment of sashimi. The chefs have been through six years of training, and it is a treat to watch them at work.

click to enlarge Salmon toro tartar (a patty of raw, diced salmon belly, blended with diced mango and topped with caviar and a maraschino cherry) - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Salmon toro tartar (a patty of raw, diced salmon belly, blended with diced mango and topped with caviar and a maraschino cherry)

The sushi-sashimi menu contains a vast number of items. Salmon toro tartar ($8.95) is a patty of raw, diced salmon belly, blended with diced mango and topped with caviar — black, red, green and yellow — and a maraschino cherry. Remove the cherry, and your plate looks like it holds a miniature version of the electronic memory game, Simon. The salmon is fresh, cool, and a little creamy, but the caviar really grabs attention. The tiny fish eggs roll between the crevices of your teeth, and crunch when you trap them between your molars. A tiny burst releases an almost citrusy flavor, yielding to a pleasantly fishy and metallic taste.

Magura (tuna, $2.50) and ikura (salmon roe, $3.50) are deep pink in color, and appear jewel-like against the white, rectangular plates. These taste clean and fresh — Umi's owner, Jason Dao, says he has fish delivered from New York City every other day.

Not everything from the sushi bar is raw. The Angry Dragon Roll special ($15.95) stuffs spicy tuna, shrimp tempura, and mango in seaweed, which is then enrobed in rice, and topped with king crab and a thin dressing. Sliced into eight pieces, it is plated with an abstract drawing in soy sauce, a blob of wasabi, some pickled ginger, and, for garnish, a purple orchid. The roll isn't particularly spicy, but its tempura-batter crunch, soy-sauce saltiness, and mild seafood tastes blend into something enjoyable.

Shumai ($5.95) are delicate little packages: petite purses of thin dough surrounding a minced shrimp filling. Prettily arranged on the plate, they are mild and made all the more lovely with a syrupy dipping sauce containing sweet, salty, and ginger notes.

click to enlarge The interior at Umi. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • The interior at Umi.

In front of the sushi bar are several teppanyaki tables. These take up the majority of the dining space in the restaurant, and each table seats a crowd; it is not uncommon to sit with other patrons at one table. Teppanyaki is frequently called hibachi — which is the term used at Umi and other similar restaurants in the area — though hibachi style cooking is done over a grill, while teppanyaki cooking is done on a flat griddle.

The hibachi/teppanyaki menu is fairly standard at Umi. You can choose from vegetables, proteins, or combinations of proteins, which come with a cup of simple soup, a cold iceberg salad with sweet carrot-ginger dressing, fried rice, grilled vegetables, and a couple of teriyaki shrimp. Prices range from $14.95 for vegetables only to $42.95 for the Umi Supreme, which comes with filet mignon, lobster, shrimp, and scallops.

click to enlarge A Scorpion Bowl at Umi. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • A Scorpion Bowl at Umi.
click to enlarge The Pink Lady roll at Umi. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • The Pink Lady roll at Umi.

The chicken ($16.95) and the steak and shrimp combo (called "Land and Sea," $25.95) are all tender, if a little sweet. With all the sides, it is a filling meal. The best reason to sit at the teppanyaki tables, however, is to watch the chef prepare your dinner. Spinning spatulas, egg juggling, water and vegetables shot into the mouths of willing patrons, flames that shoot up toward the ceiling — it is literally dinner and show.

Fire is not limited to dinner. The Scorpion Bowl ($15) is an alcoholic punch for two, presented in a giant ceramic cup decorated with hula dancers. The cup rises up in the center to form a miniature volcano, which is filled with splash of rum and set on fire. Circling this is the punch (made with vodka, rum, gin, triple sec, and fruit juice) filled with ice, slices of citrus fruit, and maraschino cherries. Served with two, 2-foot straws, it takes extra time and suction power to sip the drink. The punch tastes mostly of citrus, but after a few sips, you'll have no doubts that the alcohol is there.

Umi's menu is not the most traditional presentation of Japanese food, but it is pleasant, and the overall dining experience is entertaining and lively. On a Sunday afternoon, two separate families celebrated their tween daughters' birthdays, complete with singing waitresses, dessert, and candles. On a Saturday night, a couple playfully stole pieces of sushi from one another's plate. A weekday lunch found a young family having a quiet meal, the children's attention occupied by the restaurant's flashing lights and futuristic décor. On all of these occasions, everyone I spied seemed to be having a good time.

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