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Umami

The Marina's New Flavor Profile

  • Umami
    2909 Webster Street, San Francisco, CA 94123 (Map)
    415.346.3431

Flavor is often described in four ways: bitter, sour, salty, and sweet. But there's a fifth, more eclectic element that Japanese call "umami," and this is where the new restaurant in the old Yoshida-Ya space comes in. A clever endeavor, Umami incorporates tastes from Japan, Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam to create a "best of" list in a manner that strives to recreate classic dishes.

Open since mid-December 2006 as the sister restaurant to Mamacita on Chestnut, Umami is the result of another successful collaboration among chef Sam Josi (Mamacita, Slanted Door, and Betelnut), general manager Strycker Scales, and Nate Valentine (Vintage 415), who make up the Sustainable Restaurants family. Their intent was to create a space where people could hang out with friends, pub-style, over a few drinks and food in the Japanese slow food tradition. Unfortunately with a neighborhood that has wildly embraced this newcomer, the packed bars and full tables mean that sitting back and hanging with friends is more aspiration than reality.

There is no sign, lit lantern, or lights ablaze to indicate that it is even a restaurant, and regardless of this low profile, the throngs of neighborhood groups converging at the live-edge cedar bar, communal table, overstuffed booths, and scattered tables indicate that Umami is the infusion that the neighborhood needed. Stepping past the heavy wood door, you'll be transported by the elegant, urban, yet lodge-like décor. However, this restaurant shines best when you make reservations for a table upstairs and avoid the weekends (at least until its novelty dies down).

The menu is organized to mirror the five elements: water, fire, metal, wood, and earth. The water segment encapsulates starters like the spicy, melt-in-your-mouth kanpachi carpaccio ($13) accompanied by a tangy carrot salad, the ahi poke ($14) to be scooped up with black sesame rice crackers, the standard vegetarian summer rolls ($7) with a more creamy than traditional peanut dipping sauce, and a huge bowl of chilled edamame ($4). Sushi falls under this category too. We tried the salmon-colored Tazmanian ocean trout nigiri ($6) sprinkled with sea salt, a king crab and avocado maki ($12) topped with unagi and macadamia nut, and the spicy scallop and avocado maki ($12) with salmon and Meyer lemon.

Dishes from the fire segment are robata and dim sum items. We sampled the salt 'n pepper day-boat scallops ($12) -- three perfectly grilled scallops leaning against a dipping dish of red curry cream adjacent to a cellophane noodle garlic salad. From the dim sum side, we tasted the chicken gyoza ($7), which were pan fried and accompanied by a red chile soy dipping sauce. The Galangal duck okonomiyaki ($14), considered a house specialty, was a pancake-like concoction of mung bean batter, duck, and the house hoisin sauce. It was a bit soggy for our taste, but we still managed to clean the plate.

It's possible to put together a meal of small plates, or another approach is to order one or two starters and get a few main dishes to share family style. Of the wood element, the miso-glazed black cod ($17) atop baby leeks and sesame spinach, and swimming in a soupy Sichuan peppercorn-miso broth, was one of our favorites. Another dish was the wok-tossed lemongrass chicken ($15) with toasted peanuts and Thai basil.

For dessert (all $7), the chocolate-chip cookie dough sushi was one of the craftiest sweet creations we've come across. The cookie dough was wrapped around vanilla gelato and topped with chocolate sauce and crushed peanuts to look like a seaweed-wrapped roll. On the side was ginger candy for ginger, green peppermint sauce as wasabi, and more chocolate sauce as the soy. The apple spring rolls with vanilla bean gelato, a simpler example of Asian-American dessert fusion, tasted like a healthy version of a McDonald's apple pie.

Wine director, Philip Aquafresca put together a list from around the world, with 15 selections by the glass ($6-$10), leaning more heavily toward whites. The main focus, however, is on sake and tea. Chef Josi and partner Scales traveled to Japan on a research trip and developed a list featuring all-pure rice artisan sakes. There is a full bar and a few specialty cocktails like the Koji Queen ($8), nigori sake, prosecco, and pomegranate juice. The tea, which includes a white tea, a few green teas, Oolong, black, and herbal, is served loose-leaf in an iron pot.

Those on first dates might want to pass or make sure to get a reservation for a table upstairs, where the atmosphere is more zen-like with a large tree trunk jutting from floor to ceiling, salvaged wood floors, and soothing Japanese gardens around the booths. Otherwise, the restaurant has a more catching-up-with-friends vibe that is perfect for celebrations and groups of four or more since these revelers might not notice the high noise level or inconsistent service. Small things like filling water glasses and timing dishes to maintain a smooth flow would go a long way.

Once the newness wears down and the edges are smoothed out, Josi's stellar menu with its diverse selections and elegantly designed space will make Umami the true neighborhood hangout that it set out to become.


Asian Small Plates
Cow Hollow
$$$

Reservations essential? Yes