Next door to Society Club, the entrance to the just-opened Umami – a name that references one of the five basic Japanese tastes – resembles a posh hotel lobby. A friendly hostess joins guests from behind the ‘check-in’ counter and leads you into the dining area. The dark orange, crushed velvet booths wrap around tables made from thick slabs of granite, creating an intimate atmosphere for diners.
Umami describes itself on its website as ‘a Japanese restaurant unlike any other’, a rather vague claim that’s impossible to dispute. So as to avoid sounding like a narrow-minded food snob who can’t appreciate creative chefs, I would like to preface this by stating that I am all about taking chances when it comes to food. However, many of the dishes being served at Umami resembled an experiment gone bust – recipes seemed to leave out key ingredients, or strongly lack substance.
Starting the meal, we had high hopes for chopped up toro sprinkled with caviar, but it arrived in a serving that only just filled the shot glass and could easily be scooped up in one teaspoon. There was barely enough to have a proper taste – especially when all of these dishes are meant to be shared. All I could tell was the black eggs didn’t even come close to bursting in my mouth, perhaps because there were only ten in total. One dish that did deserve praise was the braised tongue. The meat was cut thinly and complemented with a drop of strong Japanese mustard to provide bold flavour.
Another standout dish was served later in the meal – though regrettably, it was memorable for the wrong reason. I assumed that a spicy tuna roll would be served raw, not from what tasted like canned fish. The waiter was eager to receive feedback following many of our dishes, and when the issue of cooked sushi was addressed, he assured us that while the meat was cooked, it was of ‘high quality’. I wanted to tell him that the restaurant would be better off buying it from 7-Eleven; it would have cut costs and tasted exactly the same. The minuscule portions of food that were served left us so hungry that we ended up heading to Little India and digging into dinner number two.
Low expectations led to a few pleasant surprises upon our second visit. The menu had been slightly tweaked and thankfully the greasy sea urchin spring rolls we’d sampled at our first meal, filled with less than a pinch of uni and sprinkled with minimal flavour, were no longer being served. Several other revisions had been made to the selections. Thinly sliced strings of cuttlefish had been battered like tempura and served on a round dish, surrounded by sweet Japanese mayonnaise and sprinkled with bright red chilli powder. Cuttlefish can often leave you chewing long after you’re ready to swallow, but the smooth texture of the complementary sauce allowed us to enjoy it the whole way through.
Folded pieces of lightly seared salmon were each topped with a thin slice of cherry tomato and placed on a long, narrow dish. Small dots of pale green wasabi framed the fish, and added a little kick to each bite. It is evident that Umami puts a lot of thought into the presentation, and there are flavours that can be savoured. The problem was that portion size was still falling short, dish after dish. When trying to gauge an idea of how many dishes to order, we enquired about the braised pork. We were told eight slices would be served, but when it showed up, there were only four on the plate. While this was sufficient for two as a taster, it was more a matter of principle. What appears to be fat that health-conscious diners would cut off turns out to be the best part, and would be insultingly wasteful to remove.
The staff seem open to suggestions, a good sign that they are looking to improve the food. We would like to stay open-minded and hope that this new restaurant will be able to fix all its kinks, but all we know is that there’s a lot of work to be done. If this is unlike any ‘other’ Japanese restaurant, I think we’ll have to stick with the others.
Costs: Main courses $12-$30.
|Venue name:||Umami (CLOSED)|
#01-30 Liang Court
177 River Valley Road
|Opening hours:||Daily noon-3pm, Mon-Sat 6-11pm.|
|Do you own this business?|