With Umame (‘the fifth taste’, in Japanese), expect to find comfort and adventure. Comfort from flavours that Joss loyalists have missed since it shuttered, and adventure in a pan-Asian menu that stretches boundaries enough to provide gentle thrills for every kind of seeker. On the second day of business, the room — with its smart, ochre chairs, panelling and dark wooden bar with slender threads dangling droplets of light — was packed with all sorts of chopstick-, soup spoon- and fork-wielding punters.
At some tables, there were two generations of families, at others, groups of couples or friends (including some of owner Farrokh Khambata, who was making the rounds that night), digging into platters of soft shell crab sushi, crispy aromatic duck with mandarin pancakes, and pan-fried noodles with asparagus and broccoli.
The menu runs for pages, making it hard to pick just a few dishes. This makes Umame best suited to large groups or repeat visitors. What’s more, it offers the most popular dishes (khao suey, miso-encrusted sea bass, nasi goreng and chocolate cigars, to name a few) from the now-shuttered Joss. Is it better to go with what has been tried and loved, or to trust that similar joys will be found in venturing into the untasted new? Favourites, by definition, are tuned to please. We decided to risk novelty.
Our ‘new style sashimi’ of tuna tiradito (lightly seasoned with soy, mirin and shishito pepper) came in a martini glass and looked, at first glance, like glistening chunks of watermelon. The cubed fish provided the gentlest resistance before falling apart, fresh and full with the flavour of a seaside breeze. With the miso-flavoured shiitake sushi, our starters delivered the flavour promised in the restaurant’s name.
While Umame’s wagyu gyoza (pan-fried dumplings) are a lovely riff on chewy and creamy, we couldn’t help but miss the texture of whole, un-minced pieces of the marbled meat. If the hand-pulled noodles with asparagus sound too simple to be much fun, their light springiness will correct the notion. My dinner companion gladly abandoned his carb-challenged diet for a generous portion.
I wish the delicious Massaman curry — a Thai dish of Muslim origin marked by a dominant tamarind flavour and warming spices — had been lighter on the coconut milk; I would have been able to scarf down more spoonfuls. Even the water chestnuts and skin-on duckmeat in it were distractions, and basmati rice veiled its explosive flavour.
Is Umame’s food all authentic, true to tradition and roots? Not quite. I suspect it is intended to offer delicious interpretations.
The restaurant’s silken tofu tossed in dark soy with cashewnuts will greatly please vegetarians. Enthused by reports of Umame’s rum-and-Coke ice-cream, we decided to call for the walnut-and-hazelnut tart it accompanies. The phyllo tart was lightly sweet, deeply buttery, loaded with nuts. It easily outshone the ice-cream, which lost most of its flavour to too much sugar.
The first time you go, be sure to step out on to the verandah, perhaps with a burnt lemon and vanilla margarita (light but well-rounded and not too potent). With astroturf underfoot, flickering faux candles, and drum-like stools, it is a pretty spot to look out over the Oval and catch a pre- or post-dinner cocktail.