Umu – a treat too far?

Japanese food was something that I’d been missing in Buenos Aires, there were one or two places that you could go to for a fix but the city was lacking in anywhere truly special. So now back in the UK, we decided to go to Umu to celebrate our return to the motherland. This was the first really treatsy meal I’d had since going back and at £100 for the tasting menu it really was high on the treatsy scale. I’d read some great things about it though, a few complained about the prices but on the whole it was generally regarded as one of, if not the best Japanese restaurant in London. I didn’t want to get too excited, as these sort of statements generally lead to disappointment, but I was certainly looking forward to it.

Nestled down a mews street in Mayfair, it’s a stone’s throw from the slightly flashier Hakkasan although it does have a rather cool button that when pressed reveals a sliding door, all very James Bond. The decor is what you’d expect from an up market Japanese restaurant; understated and calm with the tables set up around the sushi bar in the middle. I’d pretty much already decided to have the taster before we sat down. I’d never had a Japanese one and Umu’s signature Kaiseki menu is the Kyoto equivalent of haute cuisine and is world famous. The menu itself was an interesting read and although I was tempted by the a la carte we decided to go for the tasting despite the prohibitively high price.

First up was a beautifully presented cured Arctic char, which we were told is a distant cousin of the trout and was served with fried baby artichoke and trout roe. I really liked the balance of this dish, the char was delicious and worked beautifully with the artichokes. All in all, a lovely start to the meal.

Cured Artic char served with fried baby artichoke garnished with shiso-oroshi with trout roe and shiso flowers

Next up was steamed grouper in a Ichiban-dashi broth. Apologies for the photo it was impossible to get a decent angle. This, on the face of it, was a relatively simple dish. The grouper was nicely fleshy and the vegetables were amazingly fresh. The soup itself was very refreshing but not particularly bursting with flavour (although I don’t think it’s meant to be), it was all very good and I happily slurped down the broth but overall I wasn’t particularly blown away by the dish as whole.

Steamed grouper with seasonal vegetable served in an Ichiban-dash

We then moved on to one of the things I’d most been looking forward to; the sashimi selection. I love raw fish and I was excited to see how it would be presented in such an upmarket place. What came out didn’t disappoint: we had a selection of sea bass, trout and red tuna, all of which were top quality as you’d expect and which came with an absolutely mind blowing citrus soy sauce that was unbelievably moreish. There weren’t quite enough pieces of sashimi for my liking (6) but I suppose in the context of how much was still to come this was probably just me being greedy.

Sashimi platter

After the sashimi we were served Scottish lobster served on a corial sauce finished with shavings of summer truffle. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting after reading the menu but what came out was a bit of a surprise. The lobster was served on a spoon with a small shaving on top. It was delicious; rich and creamy but sadly all over in one bite which I thought was a little bit of a cop out.

Scottish lobster served on a corial sauce finished with shavings of summer truffle

After gobbling down the lobster we were then presented with seared wild salmon and scallops, cooked in the shell with 3 miso ginger sauce. This was a much more generous portion and very tasty indeed. The scallops were exactly as they should be; succulent and tender and the salmon soft and delicate, another winner.

Seared wild salmon and scallop served on a 3 miso ginger sauce and kaiyak

We then had a break from the fish courses and were presented with guinea fowl in a hot “spring” sauce. I asked the waiter if guinea fowl was a particularly Japanese dish and he admitted that perhaps it wasn’t but the preparation was. This was my least favourite course of the meal but quite some distance, the guinea fowl seemed very rich and heavy after all the fish and had a smoky flavour that I didn’t like particularly. The whole dish felt a bit forced and didn’t really fit with the delicate balance of the rest of the meal, a low point.

Free range guinea fowl served with aubergine with a "hot spring" egg sauce and cracked sanhyo seeds

The final savoury course was sea bass marinated and served in green tea stock with nori rice. I definitely raised an eyebrow at the thought of sea bass with green tea but this dish worked really well. Although I was absolutely stuffed from the guinea fowl by this point I managed to find room for most of it but couldn’t quite finish all the rice, as good as it was.

"Suzuki-Chyazuke" Sea bass marinated and served in green tea stock with nori and arare with a sour plum sauce Japanese pickles

We finished with a new tomato mousse with basil sorbet that was a fun pairing and settled the stomach nicely.

New tomato mousse with jelly and shiso sorbet and a schichi

I’ve had a few days to think about my meal at Umu and have conflicting views on what I thought of it. On the one hand we had a brilliant meal that was unlike anything I’d had before and differs so much from the tasters that I’m used to; it was delicate, interesting and authentic. However I still baulk at the price tag on this meal. Reading old reviews the price quoted for the taster was £65, the price is now a cool £100 without even getting into wine and service. For this amount of money I expect the food to be earth shattering, life changing and mind blowing but I just don’t think this was. Yes, it was of a very high quality but sitting here now not one of the dishes (except possibly the sashimi) really stays in the mind, and I really think that says something. If Umu was 50% cheaper I would be raving about it but I just don’t think it was good enough to merit this price tag. I’m going to check out Sushi of Shiori and Sushi Hiro and see how they measure up at a quarter of the price.

Umu on Urbanspoon


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