A fusion bistro finds its crowd
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  November 3, 2010

NOT A SUSHI BAR And not a restaurant for people who are very hungry, Umami offers some rare tastes — like this mild pumpkin custard, gone in four bites.

Umami is a confusing name for a bistro with touches of Asian fusion, especially in Brookline, where there seems to be a sushi bar for every 15.3 residents. Umami doesn't sell sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, suki yaki, tempura, tonkatsu, or soup with udon noodles. So it has taken six months to get a proper neighborhood following as the kind of place where you sit down and there is a little amuse-bouche demitasse cup of pumpkin soup with a few pine nuts sprinkled on.

Appetizers proper are, if anything, more conventionally bar food than they were at the opening. While the big bowl of mussels ($7) is Euro-style, with maybe a hint of sake in the broth, there isn't enough bread, beyond a single crostino, to make a full analysis. Coconut shrimp ($6.50) is Border Cafe food, albeit nicely done here with four shrimp and dipping sauce a Thai restaurant might use on calamari. Tiger shrimp ($6) are in a kind of ersatz Szechwan sauce. So my favorite appetizer ended up being sweet-potato fries ($5), a hearty portion, not quite crisp as is the nature of the dish, but with lots of flavor and a house-doctored spicy ketchup if you want to dip.

My favorite main dish had a little more fusion to it: pan-seared salmon ($18), on which I thought there was some of the sweet miso glaze Japanese restaurants use over black cod, with green-tea soba (buckwheat) noodles and a couple of little green baby bok choy.

Hoisin duck breast ($19) was a little too compact. You want more hoisin flavor to mimic Peking duck, especially when you are presenting the sliced pieces of duck breast with the pancakes (but not the scallions) traditional with the first course of Peking duck. And the fruit chutney is nice, but not what one expects from a dish called Hoisin duck breast. The skin was reasonably crisp and the meat tender, without too much fat, and a fine dice of carrots was seasonal and locovore.

Eggplant scampi ($15; add shrimp for $3) was a very satisfying noodle dish, except that when I added the shrimp, I seem to have inadvertently subtracted the eggplant. Or maybe the rounds of zucchini were the intended substitute in any case? What you get, with or without shrimp and/or eggplant, is a vegan possibility in which cubes of firm five-spice tofu actually work well, with fresh Euro basil on udon noodles. Close your eyes, and it is everything Italian except al dente. Korean fermented black garlic — this year's fad ingredient, watch for it — blends into a richer yet less-sharp garlic sauce. I'm trying it on my pasta as soon as the basil dies. Baby lamb chops ($19) are a value choice since the portion is four, Frenched (fat meat pushed off the long rib part) for better handles, seasoned with an enhancing glaze, and served with some tasty winter squash.

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  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Restaurant Reviews, Brookline, bistro,  More more >
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