Savoring the unexpected
Asian fusion comes together at new Brookline bistro
Umami is not what you expect. It’s a Brookline restaurant with a Japanese name and a Japanese chef, but it doesn’t serve sushi. It’s a bistro, but it deviates from the strict bistro diet of chicken-pork-steak smattered with frites and mashed, garlic and thyme, beet salad and crab cakes, plus creme brulee for dessert. Chef Yoshi Hakamoto offers dishes you won’t have at every other bistro in town, or any other bistro for that matter.
Hakamoto previously owned Allston yakitori bar Sumi and was a partner in Thai restaurant Khao Sarn. With this new venture, he applies the flavors of Japan, China, and Southeast Asia to Western food. The result is Asian fusion that actually fuses, at a friendly neighborhood price point.
It makes delicious sense, for instance, to serve steak au poivre with Sichuan peppercorns added to the mix. The meat is juicy and medium-rare, and cognac sauce lends a classic flavor. A bite of the generous rib eye brings the buzz of black pepper to the tongue. It’s followed by the slightly numbing, greener heat of the Sichuan spice — different, welcome.
Salmon and mango salsa have tangoed together before. Green tea soba joins the mix, dipped in a dashi-based sauce. The tropical and traditional fall into step, an interplay of salt and sweet. (The dish would be all the more interesting if you could taste the green tea.)
Interplay is what most of the dishes here aim for, showcasing contrasting ingredients. They incorporate fruit, chilies, miso, soy. The restaurant is named for the so-called fifth taste, often translated from Japanese as “savory.’’ An appetizer of shiitake mushrooms, an ingredient said to be high in umami, exemplifies Hakamoto’s cooking. They’re sliced and sauteed, slightly crisp on the outside and tender in the middle. They’re prepared with Grand Marnier and yuzu marmalade, a jam made from the pungent Japanese citrus fruit. On top of the warm mushrooms is a fried quail egg, too small for its oozing yolk to really coat the shiitake. Still, a bite of the meaty mushrooms with the yuzu jam has the effect of a mallet in a carnival game, the flavors shooting through your mouth — ding!
Sweet potato fries don’t seem like anything special; they’re simply served with house-made ketchup. But they’re out of the ordinary in their extreme crispness and sweet, gooey interiors. Eggplant “scampi’’ is thin udon tossed with firm five-spice tofu, Thai basil, and not enough vegetables; even eggplant barely makes an appearance. (You can also add shrimp for a more truly scampi-like experience.) But the simplicity of the noodles appeals — they’re carried mainly by a very large dose of very mellow black garlic.
Hakamoto’s creations don’t always work, going too far in the quest for umami, or not quite far enough.
A dish of duck breast glazed lightly in hoisin incorporates passion fruit, cranberry, and mango chutney. It’s like eating a Yankee Candle store. All of that sweet, aromatic fruit cancels out the other flavors. The duck sits on a bed of chopped, roasted carrots, monotonous orange; other vegetables, such as turnips and parsnips, would have offered welcome variety.
An overcooked piece of Chilean sea bass has been simmered with sake and miso, a pleasing if familiar combination of tastes. Smooth and fabulously buttery sweet potato puree adds a new flavor to the mix, but that flavor is Thanksgiving. It doesn’t quite jibe with the fish. The addition of star anise, ginger, or another such flavor might have tweaked it just enough, bringing it into line.
Umami has probably introduced more diners to the stinky-sweet durian than any other bistro in town. A custard made from the fruit is served over a medley of wild rice that’s a bit too dry and chewy. The restaurant offers just two desserts (there’s also a pumpkin custard), and sometimes only this one; it’s a bold choice to make it a fruit that’s famous for being fetid. Fans of durian will approve.
Hakamoto runs Umami with his wife, Nomun, and beverage director Noon Inthasuwan, who has put together a strong list of cocktails. She makes syrups in flavors such as marigold and hibiscus, and her drinks often combine bitters with sweet ingredients, furthering the focus on umami. The Brookline is a fine Manhattan, made with her own shiitake bitters; the Noon-O-Roni features gin and hibiscus bitters. Inthasuwan also offers sake, beer, and a wine list with more range than one might expect. She is a frequent visitor to customers’ tables, explaining cocktails and making suggestions.
Hakamoto renovated much of Umami himself, building the bar, the tables, and the sage green banquettes; Nomun Hakamoto painted the walls the color of curried pumpkin. It’s pretty but pared back; it looks, in fact, a bit like a sushi bar. Some more softening touches — cushions, drapes — would help it feel more like the bistro it is. Brookline has plenty of places to eat California maki, but only one that serves Sichuan steak au poivre.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.