Having started the blog for almost three months, I still find it difficult to post all the restaurants I love as opposed to the new, exciting places that mushroomed up in London and all over the places. And before I fly off to Germany for currywursts and gluhwein this weekend, I am adamant I have to blog about one of my most favourite Japanese restaurants Umu, renowned for its lavish “traditional” Kaiseki menu.
What’s Kaiseki? Generally recognised as a Kyoto tradition, the Kaiseki is, let’s say, one extensive, ceremonious eating of a well-balanced menu comprising five plus dishes with each prepared in a different way. This can be an equivalence of Western-style tasting menu. Now with head chef Yoshinori Ishii leading the kitchen, Umu is as bustling as always. There are changes made to the menu; the extended luxurious Kaiseki sets are slimmed down into two options–one with sushi and the other without–equally priced at £95, making it a lot easier to choose and kinder to the eyes in this classy, but dimly lit restaurant.
I opted for the Sushi Kaiseki Tasting Menu of eight courses, six of which were fish dishes, one meaty Shizakana of venison and one dessert.
First up the raw fish course of Kombu Cured Turbot, Tofu, Grated White Turnip, Shitake Mushroom. The dish had the term “luxury” written across. The turbot was uber fresh with its sweetness enhanced by the light essence and fiery wasabi and grated turnip. There was a lot of texture too.
The second course was a simmered dish of Scottish Lobster, Sesame Tofu and Maitake Mushroom in Inchiban Dashi with Daikon Cress, Musubi and Yuzu. My favourite of the evening! The warm, almost golden broth was subtle in its flavours; I could smell and taste the citrus-y yuzu and enjoy the crunch and the aroma of the maitake. The sesame tofu was glutinous, adding dimension to this soup dish, and pleasant, and the lobster was poached to dissolve in no more than two bites.
The third to grace my table was the Chef’s Selection of Modern Sushi. I was rather disppointed seeing there were only three pieces. One was this Red Mullet, Kinome Dressing, Hazelnuts and Parma Ham. Very meaty; the modern combo injected some luxurious touch of not only fattiness but mint-like freshness into the red mullet with a bit of crunch and the aroma of cured meat punctuating through. Too bad there was only one piece!
The Brown Crabs, Courgette, Pine Nuts, Garlic, Red Ishimi Pepper was almost as good. Sweetness was the predominant flavour; the creaminess of the dressed crab was doubled by the glossy ribbon of courgette, with the other ingredients moulding in very subtly. My last piece of the Chef’s Selection was Seared Tuna, Maitake Mushroom and Kinome. The cooked mushrooms worked to add fattiness and meaty texture to the seared tuna as well as the texture, yet I felt, the least favourite among the three.
Having just finished my third course, I somehow knew I might be feel much fed at the end of the meal and decided to order extras. The Foie Gras Sushi, Lily Root, Winter Mushrooms in Harumaki Cup was the best and most creative foie gras dish I’d ever tasted across a wide range of not just Japanese restaurant. When foie gras was on a sushi menu, it was either gimmicky or one-dimensional, but for this one, the sweet and mellowy flavour of the foie was well contrasted by the root and the crispy cup. The sourness of the vinegar rice pierced through very nicely. It’s like eating a lot of snacks and I couldn’t help salivate for more. The pricing of £6 a piece, I must say, was tolerable judging from the satisfaction I got. I also asked for one helping for the Egg Nigiri; Umu’s was very delicious. Yet, priced at £3 apiece, I felt obliged to resist my urges for more.
Moving on to this luxurious course of Squid, Cucumber and Caviar, I must say, as much as I was turned on by the chef’s spooning caviar on top of the squid, I did not feel an orgasmic rush of flavour through my veins when I finally put this in my mouth. This could be a great “amuse bouche” of the meal but served after a few courses of more outstanding dishes, I was not convinced.
The cooked dish of Grated Turnip, Shitake and Enoki, Monk Fish Cheek, Foie Gras and Umadashi was more satisfying. I was recommended to mix it all up together and I did. There was a touch of saltiness and sweetness, the creamy foie and grated turnip combined. Just like eating savoury, warm bowlful of ice cream. But, portion-wise, this was almost a joke, and as much as I didn’t want to wrestle with their tradition of serving small dishes, I felt a little concerned my belly would only be half filled by the end of the meal!
When my “main” course of Roasted Venison, Burdock, Yuzu Koshu arrived, I encountered a culture shock. Were they serious? Four slices of venison for a Shizakana? As good as the dish was–note the perfectly roasted meat with the sweetness and crunch from the burdock coming through–this was unacceptable; I was hoping the last course Classic Sushi would be something more substantial, or else I might have to rush for a kebab after this.
And it came, the Classic Sushi Selection with the portion smaller than Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers. Perhaps a kebab might not be enough after all. Quality and taste-wise, it was very good, but no better than Yashin or Shiori. Plus, the pain of knowing I would be paying a certain amount of money at the end of the meal but did not feel properly and utterly fed did leave a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.
Desserts. Chestnut Cake, Cointreau Ice Cream, Seasonal Fruit. There was no firework at all. The chestnut cake, made from chestnut puree with red bean filling, was decent but appallingly inadequate. The fruit? Let’s just say, did I need to come to a Michelin restaurant for fresh fruit? I decided to order one more dessert just to stop me being too grumpy after dinner and I picked this White Miso Ice Cream, which was fantastic enough to shut me up.
All in all, it was a good meal, starting off very strong and giving me an expectation of a firework; towards the end, it was good but severely inadequate. I really didn’t want to sound a snob here, but the more expensive Kaiseki they got rid of from the menu at least made me feel it was worth the money.
My head rating says, “7 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “7 out of 10″.
14-16 Bruton Place
Tel. 020 7499 8881