14-16 Bruton Place,
Tel. 020 7499 8881
Food type: Japanese
Food rating: 5/10
Nearest tube: Bond Street
Kyoto is supposedly the spiritual home of Japanese cuisine. Kyo-ryori or Kyoto cuisine is considered one of the three most sophisticated cuisines in the world (the other two being French and Chinese… sorry Britain) with equal importance placed on taste and presentation. Japanese cuisine after all places as much emphasis on the bold as it does the subtle by means of restraint and simplicity. As such Kyo-ryori is somewhat similar to a seasonal degustation menu you will find in French restaurants. There are different types of Kyo-ryori (four in total) the most common (at least in the UK) is the Kaiseki Ryori.
This is where Umu comes in – when it first opened its sliding panel doors in 2004, there was as much buzz about its ultra expensive Kaiseki menu as there was about the fact that this was the first time that Kaiseki dining would be introduced in the UK. The idea was to have a surprise menu based on whichever ingredients the chef deemed best on that day. Back then, it was touted that you could run a bill of up to £250 (or more!) going for one of these ‘market price’ menus. Of course such figures never quite materialized, and the restaurant wisely chose to offer three different kaiseki menus at varying price points, with the most basic one at £65 which is pretty much in the cost of a tasting menu at most 1* French restaurant. Thanks to Umu, and the success of this concept, many Japanese restaurants in London today offer some form of Kaiseki menu.
The word ‘Umu’ means ‘life’, ‘fresh’, ‘plain’ and ‘the birth’, perhaps a subtle reference to food concept being served here. The entrance of the restaurant is unique unto itself – hidden by a sliding wooden door which you gain access to by pressing the magic button… or at least a touch panel located next to it. Be sure to say “Open Sesame” like Ali Baba would when gaining access to his cave of wonders of opulent brown. Once inside, you are greeted by the waiting staff, as per Japanese tradition, including the head chef himself, Ichiro Kubota.
Kubota-san knew that being a chef was always his destiny. While his fellow friends busying themselves with computer games (as you would expect in tehcnology crazed Japan) Ichiro entertained himself in his father’s restaurant kitchen. The English speaking Ichiro completed a degree in English Literature before spending 7 years honing and perfecting his skills at some of Kyoto’s finest restaurants, including Tsuruya – the restaurant of choice of the Japanese Imperial family. Unlike most Japanese chefs though, Kubota-san felt the need to broaden his horizons overseas, in France. As a child, he was inspired by the theatre involved in French cuisine. Hence, in 2002, Kubota-san packed his bags and left the comfort of Kyoto for the Michelin starred Hotel la Villa in Corsica before moving on to work at Duverger (lyon) and Georges Blanc.
“I was asked to make a sushi of my own creation which I did using a langoustine sauce.”
As fate would have it, just as he was about to leave Corsica, he made an appetiser dish for restaurateur Marlon Arbela who was looking for a head chef for his new Japanese restaurant venture. And so, Umu was born, and won its Michelin star within 5 months of opening.
(Please note for the purpose of this review, we opted for different Kaiseki menus in order to try a wider variety of the food on show)
Deep Fried Aubergine, Green Pea Puree, Uni, Chopped Wakuda, Shiso Flower, Grated Ginger
Champagne glasses topped up at the ready, we began our meal with a little ‘amuse bouche’ or Sakizuke of aubergine, peas and uni (sea urchin). This had a very weird texture to it with both the aubergine and uni giving a very slippery texture. The rich uni roe, aubergine and pea combination was a standout – providing plenty of umami goodness with the little grating of ginger well controlled and adding freshness to the dish. (6/10)
The second course, or Hassun is a seasonal appetiser which is based on a theme – in this case earth and sea. First off was a soft plum, further sweetened by being cooked in a flavoured syrup topped with a gold leaf for aesthetic purposes. Pleasant enough I suppose although hardly exciting. (4/10) Next was an interesting salad of muscat grape, mushrooms, mud potato, radish and abalone (oomer) – the sweetness of the grape providing good contrast to the earthiness of the mud potatoes and mushrooms although the abalone, a shellfish with very subtle flavour, was somewhat inconspicuous. (4/10) Unagi (fresh water eel) cooked with tamari soya sauce was delicious – the oiliness of the eel providing a good counter-balance to the sweet, sticky soy marinade it had absorbed. Did I mention that the eel was of superb quality? Well, it was! An interesting maki of white squash, cuttlefish and white miso (to be enjoyed with the eel) was equally enjoyable. (6/10) Finally, to complete the theme of earth and sea was a modern sushi of horse mackerel and sweet potato sushi. Once again, these unorthodox elements were worked well together. (5/10)
On to Mukozuke (the sashimi course) and we were presented with a plate of Toro (tuna belly), Hiramasa (Yellowtail Kingfish) and Amaebi (sweet shrimp) to be dipped in soy. Guests who opted for the more expensive Kaiseki menu were also offered Sea bass, cut very thinly and spread out like a fan, served with its own dipping sauce of ponzu and grated daikon. I think it is worth a special mention that the wasabi used here is the genuine grated stuff and not the powdered/ paste stuff that you get served in most places. Personally I find it pretty hard to score sashimi although it still surprises me how many restaurants fail to put together a high quality plate of sashimi despite this country being surrounded by water. However, when paying the big bucks, I will not settle for mediocrity and thankfully the fish here were of great quality… not stunning, but great. Why? Well for some reason, the toro they served here was rather fibrous when, from experience I know the fish should practically melt in your mouth. Moreover, there was a slight slip on the kitchen front in that one of my guests found a bone still embedded in the tuna. (5/10)
In a typical Kaiseki, soup is drunk at least twice. The first of two servings consisted of a broth made from Bonito and Konbu with a single beignet filled with shitake mushroom, minced duck and potato covered with roasted rice crackers. This was finished off with a feel slices of Kyoto carrots, grilled leeks and topped with more fresh wasabi. Refreshingly light, ethereal yet meaty, the soup was a winner although the stronger flavours from the beignet was a bit of a distraction in my humble opinion. The toasted flavour from the rice cracker may have been a bit harsh, muting some of the more subtle flavours within the soup. (5/10)
Refreshed from the soup, we were brought the much awaited Sushi. Alongside the more traditional sushi of maguro (tuna), toro and hiramasa were Kubota-san’s ‘modern sushi’ creations. Unlike the traditional sushi which are meant to be eaten with the soy dip, these modern sushis are supposed to be complete as is – ie pop them straight into your mouth. Of these, the best was probably akami (eel) & grilled shimeji mushroom – the eel cooked to perfection and had a toro-like texture, with the individual rice grains loose, airy and at the correct temperature. (6/10)
Taikawase of pork belly was braised in tomori soya sauce and served with mashed potatoes flavoured with bonito stock. This tasted a bit like Dongpo pork that you get served at Chinese restaurants. Decent, but unspectacular – the pork could have been braised even longer to achieve a more melt-in-your mouth texture. (5/10)
Grilled sea bass marinated with white miso paste is perhaps a nod to the miso black cod popularized at Nobu. Here the fish was served with a stem of home-made pickled ginger and two slices of pickled lotus root. The fish was cooked for far too long than ideal, because whilst I do enjoy firm fish (which many of the top London restaurants fail to serve for some reason) I do not enjoy a dried out piece of fish. (3/10)
Wagyu beef on the kaiseki menu is of the grade 6 variety. For those perhaps less familiar, they go all the way up to grade 9 although an exceptional piece of beef can be given a grade 10+ or gold label. Nevertheless, even a grade 6 piece here knocks the socks of pretty much everything that is produced in this country – my apologies in advance to all who champion British beef. When it comes to wagyu, the trick is to do as little as humanly possible with the meat as it (should) already have a very rich, buttery flavour and from experience (I am fortunate enough to have eaten plenty of wagyu in this lifetime) the commonest mistake that a chef does is to a) serve too much of it and b) serve it in an overly rich sauce. In the ideal world, a piece of grilled wagyu fillet with a dab of mustard is all that is needed. So, with all that long-winded, incessant rambling did the beef here deliver? Yes. In keeping with that rule, the beef was simply grilled pink ‘houba yaki’ style, served with a few seasonal Japanese vegetables. A nice touch though is that by serving it on top of a ‘hot stove’ the diner can continue the cooking process if they preferred their beef less pink. (7/10)
More modern sushi was in order – one a sucess and the other a bit of a minor disaster. Pairing foie gras with beef has been a natural fit since when maestro Rossini thought it was a good idea to add another 2800 calories to the plate (note: the calories may actually exceed that amount) and so the buttery beef and fatty liver combination as a sushi had natural affinity. Warm buttery foie gras, almost oozing its fatty goodness added even more complexity to the rare piece of beef. I could seriously eat ten of this, although I might not survive the heart attack which would then follow. The wagyu beef sushi with blackberry compote on the other hand was a huge letdown. In theory, the fatty beef should work well with an acidic element but I don’t where the wheels fell off because the compote was a cloying mess detracting from the flavour of the beef. (5/10)
To end the savoury course, as is traditional in Japan, a second helping of soup is offered in the form of a classic white miso soup with plenty of shimeji mushrooms. I particularly applaud the way the mushrooms were prepared as each individual one felt like a small bubble popping with flavour on the palate. Oh! And the soup was pretty good too! (6/10)
Finally, a refreshing bowl of mango sorbet topped with some coconut cream had good intense flavour of the mango, with the cream lending some additional richness to make the dessert satisfying. (6/10) Petit fours was a singular white chocolate cup with chocolate mousse and green tea powder – very pleasant. (6/10)
Service was very good as can be expected in any Japanese restaurant. Before coming here, I had read reviews that most of the waiters here were foreigners and did not speak any Japanese. I actually think it is a bad sign if I were to step into say an Indian restaurant, and none of the staff spoke Hindi/ Punjabi/ Urdu/ Tamil etc. or were Asian to begin with. This may not matter so much for some diners but it is a big deal for me for the overall dining experience (and getting authentic cooking which is the case in most Chinese restaurants). As such, I was a bit relieved that not only was the first face to greet me a Japanese lady, but so too were most of the waiting staff, bar the sommelier – and yes they did speak fluent Japanese.
Having heard mixed reviews of the food here, I too leave with a bit of mixed feelings. No doubt there were certain stars in the meal – the unagi, sea bass sashimi and the very good piece of Wagyu, but there were also many dishes which were underwhelming and forgettable. I honestly struggled to remember most of the dishes I had the very next day without the aid of photos I had taken. Additionally, the careless overcooking of the sea bass should not have perhaps been allowed to leave the kitchen for a restaurant of this calibre. As such, I think a score of 5/10 would be a fair reflection of the meal had here.