The flavours of the Far East

Good things, they say, come to those that wait. By that stretch of logic, great things should be fated for the great majority of Mumbaikars that wait and wait and wait some more as they slither through serpentine traffic that, like a Boa Constrictor, throttles the very life out of you inch by bloody inch.

Nonetheless, I found myself in the belly of the beast as I navigated a red sea of brake lights that lit up the streets of our lovely city. Depending on whose narrative you choose to follow, I was being dragged there kicking and screaming against my will even as I screamed bloody murder. Or you could choose to believe that, like most human beings, I was wary of venturing into the heart of the great unknown, or South Bombay as some know it. I know which camp I’m pitching my tent in (literally speaking, o ye of the dirty mind. But I like the way you think).

Soon enough, we land up at Umame and are ushered to our table. The first thing that strikes me is the size of the place. As proclaimed at the beginning of every Star Trek episode, space is indeed the final frontier in Mumbai. Umame, however, tries its best to dispel this notion as best as it can with its layout that sprawls across around 5000 square feet. With the warm lighting offsetting the dark hues of the predominantly wooden interiors, the place is inviting and is more than capable of saying ‘come hither’ to one and all and being able to accommodate that request.

There are several establishments that worship at the alter of haute cuisine, but if that is more your thing, Umame might not be the place for you. Over my pair of visits here, I surmised that this this is the kind of place you have good times over food that oscillates between good and great. It’s the kind of food that sometimes makes you scrunch your eyes shut and roll your head slightly as it hits the sweet spot, so to speak.

The miso seafood soup that wowed me so
The miso seafood soup that wowed me so

One of these feel great times was when I dove headfirst into a sea of Miso soup with prawns and shiitake mushrooms. I normally view soup as something akin to scenery that I zip by on the way to my eventual culinary destination, but this is one of the few soups that can easily make one stop and smell the roses. Fragrant, comforting and heart-warmingly hearty, the typically savory nature of the Miso permeated everything and warmed not just my innards, but the cockles of my cold, cold heart. In fact, you can say that it left mi-so happy.

I’ve tried and loved to varying degrees some of Japan’s most famous exports.

Walkman? Check.

Playstation? Double check.

Pokemon? Hell to the no.

Honda and Toyota? Yes and yes.

Sushi? Ummmm…

The Japanese are a really inventive lot with tons of ingenious solutions for everything known and unknown, and for me to not have tried one of its most famous exports is a bit amiss of me. Yessireebob, I’m a Sushi virgin. No, I’m going to count the dross they serve at Global Fusion as Sushi. It’s as much Sushi as I am a Masterchef. And we all know the answer to that.

I called dibs on these ribs
I called dibs on these ribs

The Sunset Boulevard served as a decent starting point, an easy initiation with nothing manic or altogether too mad to push me away. With some Tempura Prawns mixed in with some asparagus and snow crab, there was no way I’d be disappointed, and so it was. The crunch of the tempura battered prawns mixed beautifully with the sweet and spicy sauce, and it was all beautifully wiped up with some soy sauce. My first sushi roll wasn’t as memorable as my first crush, but it did leave a great taste in the mouth. That has to count for something.

Good things often come in small packages, and so it was with the Crispy Prawn and Chive Cheung Fun. Reduced to chopstick-friendly pieces, this dish was a marriage of wonderful flavours. The hit of umami dished out by soy contrasted beautifully with the crispy batter of the cheung fun, and the wobbly protein on the inside was cooked to perfection. A plateful of fun it wasn’t, but pretty damn good it was.

Cheung fun can be such fun
Cheung fun can be such fun

Some nights (okay, most nights) I find myself wrestling with several existential questions. If I could only have one car for the rest of my life, which would it be? If I could shift to any one place in the world instantly for the rest of my life, which place would it be? If I were on death row, which would be the one dish I want to be served to me?

While those three questions straddle three of the great passions in my life, I haven’t always been able to reconcile the third of those questions, with several answers ringing through my head in the minutes before I nod off to sleep.

That said, the Jasmine Tea Smoked Tender Spare Ribs they serve here have a decent shout of being that dish. Aromatic, piquant, smoky, even slightly briny in places, the ribs here were super, crisp and crackling and with the meat sliding off the bone with the practiced insouciance of an ice skater drawing a figure 8 on ice. In fact, I even resorted to chewing on the leftover bones with my canines, like a canine, and savouring every last bit of these wonderful ribs. Next time, i’m going to call dibs on the ribs.

Sweet, tangy, fresh and crunchy, the California Roll and Alaska Roll acted as wonderful little parcels of flavour and my hands were like whirling dervishes as they flew between my mouth and the plate, making a beeline from one to the other. I particularly adored the crunch of the Alaska rolls that relented and gave way to perfectly done Salmon. I was on a roll with these rolls, and it’s one flavour train I didn’t want to get off just yet.

Continuing with the trend of general fishiness, the Red Snapper with Limonella Chilli was a solid, if simple pick. Dressed in Limonella Chilli, the Snapper was treated with respect, remaining moist and tender at its core. It had me smiling with its simple brilliance, offering up a classical flavour that can’t go wrong. A dish such as this, however, is not where Umame’s strength lies elsewhere.

Rounding off the duo of comfort foods was the Yellow Tuna Fin Bibimbap, packing in dollops of heartiness and acting as a cunning champion of all things comfort. The crackling trifecta of rice, meat and vegetables melted into a wave of umami flavours that were wonderfully complemented by the crackling rice that had been frozen in time as it got fried and stuck to the sides of the hot stone bowl. The closest I can explain it all is tucking yourself into a warm quilt in the middle of a cold room, for that is the definition of comfort and nirvana to me.

The Bibimbap was pretty darn good
The Bibimbap was pretty darn good

After all the almost matronly comfort of some of the dishes that preceded it, it was time to feed my darker side. Eschewing the famous Big Bang Theory (I’d rather not die of chocolate and clogged arteries, although it’s not a particularly bad way to go), we opted instead for the Gianduja and the Hot Kahlua Chocolate Souffle and it was the simplistic decadence of the Gianduja I preferred to the Dark Knight rising that was the Hot Kahlua Chocolate Souffle. The heady finesse of the Gianduja was a glorious, sumptuous end to our meal, a darkly luxurious note that echoed the dark luxury of the interiors that enveloped us. Darkness became us.

The Gianduja ice cream was sinfully rich and bliss in a bowl
The Gianduja ice cream was sinfully rich and bliss in a bowl

In retrospect, across two meals at Umame, I realized one thing. Whatever you’re having can be bettered outright elsewhere. Royal China and Yauatcha do better, more elegant and artful dimsums. I hear great things about the sushi at 55 East, but where Umame excels is bringing together disparate dishes very well under one roof, and a quick glance at the profile of its visitors reveal that like its menu, the clientele too are eclectic and diverse.

You’d imagine that juggling so many balls in the air would be a problem and that Umame would drop the ball at some point. Perhaps they will. But with its flavourful offering that make a far-off, often untried menu seem instantly familiar Umame deserves kudos. Like Ajay Devgan on that motorbike, it seems like it is spread too thin and something must give, but it simply doesn’t. Umame straddles two worlds in utter comfort, and we are all the richer for it.

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