At Umami, the first adventure is just finding the place. Hidden away above Lawrenceville’s Round Corner Cantina, Umami beckons you up a maze of staircases and hallways, all bathed in a soft red glow that spills from paper lanterns. It feels a bit like an old-fashioned speakeasy, if the illicit substances were crispy dumplings and porky ramen broth.
When Roger Li left Tamari over a year ago, he announced that he would be spearheading his own concept somewhere nearby. Though the opening was delayed several times (as restaurant openings so often are), Umami opened its doors to the public last Tuesday. And the longer wait, it seems, allowed Li and his team to come out swinging, bringing a space that feels alluringly exotic yet comfortably familiar.
Li calls Umami an izakaya, which is Japan’s version of a neighborhood pub. In some ways it does feel like your classic corner bar: there are neon signs and cold draft beers. In most ways, however, Umami is way, way cooler. Navigating the stairwells may be the first adventure, but navigating the menu is a whole lot more fun.
The layout of Umami reflects the flexibility of the menu. Take a seat at the sushi bar and watch Li slice your sashimi and form your handrolls, sit at the bar for a cocktail and a few skewers off the robata grill, or grab a table and order a full-on feast. The small plates and affordable prices encourage you to take chances and sample a wide range of Umami’s street food inspired offerings.
The best dishes at Umami are built around the restaurant’s namesake taste: that deep, savory flavor that comes from ingredients like mushrooms and seaweed. Of the many rounds of food we ordered, the tonkotsu ramen was the definite showstopper. Firm noodles, char siu (Chinese barbecued pork), shredded bamboo and a soft-boiled egg all bathe together in a rich pork broth. The broth is the stuff of dreams: pork bones simmer for 36 hours to yield a thick, impossibly meaty liquid that will have you licking the bowl. If they served hot carafes of tonkotsu broth alongside the sake, I would die a happy (and morbidly obese) man.
Speaking of sake, the bar at Umami offers the rice wine in every form imaginable. You can get it hot, cold, or in a unique version of a boilermaker. A short pour of Kirin Ichiban accompanies a shot of sake, which is served with a tiny dropper of hibiscus syrup to be added to your liking. The cocktail list brims with playful drinks that incorporate savory and unexpected ingredients. The Tickle ‘n Giggle, for instance, adds sake and basil to a classic caipirinha template. Besides being a delightfully light springtime drink, it’s also the only cocktail I know that comes garnished with a tiny pouch of lychee Pop Rocks.
That drink encapsulates what Umami is all about: introducing guests to unfamiliar dishes and flavors in a relaxed, fun environment. Li and his team have created a tucked away space with an exciting menu, great prices and an effortlessly cool vibe—in other words, everything you could possibly want out of your neighborhood pub.
Umami is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and will serve food until 2 a.m. on the weekends. Reservations are available though not required. Check out their website for more.