The first thing you notice about Umu is the entrance, effectively hidden as a sliding wood panel and activated by a touch panel. The discreet entrance is a feature of restaurants in Japan, though I have not seen a touch panel used in this way before. Inside it is smartly decorated and peaceful, with no music playing. Umu offered a couple of tasting menus at £95 but also a range of a la carte dishes of assorted styles of Japanese cooking. Umu sources its ingredients carefully, its fish mostly from the supplier Atari-ya. There was a wide range of sake as well as an extensive wine list. It is not for the faint hearted: there were a few more modestly priced wines, such as David Traeger Verdeho 2006 at £40 for a wine that costs about £12, but mark-ups were high even as you move well up the list. Felton Road Chardonnay 2007 was £75 for a wine that you can buy for £16, Leoville Barton 2002 at £165 for a wine that retails at £43, and the lovely Tignanello Antinori 1990 was a hefty £405 for a wine that will set you back £120 in the shops. Those dining on their own money may decide to take one look at these mark-ups and do as I did, and stick to beer.
Tonight we began with a salad of tuna tartare (£20) with cashew nuts adding firm texture, sesame seeds and Japanese pickles, and deep-fried lotus roots in amongst fresh leaves and carefully judged dressing; this was well-balanced and refreshing (6/10). Tempura vegetables was less interesting, the tempura light enough, the assorted vegetables (onion, pepper, carrot, tomatoes, etc) of pleasant quality, but you need to eat the tempura in Japan to appreciate just to what a level this form of cooking can be taken (4/10). Mackerel sushi was decent but no more, back of tuna good, while there are also modern sushi variations such as seared tuna; the rice was fine, but again this was competent but did not really excite me (4/10).
The best dish was skill fish, a deepwater fish from the Sea of Japan that is reminiscent of cod, grilled in teriakyi sauce, coated with grated radish flavoured with a little citrus element, topped with little blobs of wasabi to add bit (6/10). Eel kabayaki (£21) was dipped in a marinade of sweet soy-based sauce (mirin, soy and sugar) and grilled, this process repeated, and the eel certainly had absorbed plenty of flavour and was glazed from the marinade by the time it arrived (4/10). Service was pleasant and dishes arrived at a steady but quick pace, though we did not feel rushed. The bill was £137 for two, with no wine but with beers and cocktails. Umu has a reputation for being wildly expensive, but we had plenty to eat and £68 a head is hardly excessive for good quality food like this. Steering clear of the excessively marked-up wine list is a good way to keep the bill to manageable proportions.
The notes below are from a meal in July 2007.
Presentation is excellent here, as is traditional in good restaurants in Japan. Tuna back with a sweet shrimp roll comes wrapped in a leaf, repeated in a sequence of three (4/10), as did sliced scallop with dried grey mullet eggs (4/10). Grilled eel roll was excellent, with very good eel taste and carefully cooked rice in the roll (5/10). Wagyu beef on this occasion was good but not remarkable (perhaps I am getting spoilt), the beef (which is raised in Australia in the style of Kobe beef) tender but without the remarkable marbling that you get with true Kobe beef (and indeed, certain hard to obtain beef from France and Germany). However at a hefty £55 for a portion of beef I would hope for something dazzling rather than merely very good. Miso soup was well made and indeed throughout the meal there was nothing to really fault, yet also little to get truly excited about.
Below are notes from my first meal here in May 2005, soon after it opened.
This was rather different from my expectations. All the press has been about the £200 per head kaiseki menu, yet in fact in general the menu is not excessively costly. The simplest menu is £60, and on the a la carte main courses are in mostly the £13 – £24 range, which, let’s face it, is no more than some gastropubs. The dining room is very stylish, with large mirrors on one wall, opposite which is a counter at which sushi chefs, by no means all Japanese, work. Lighting was excellent, and there were perhaps 40 or so covers. An amuse-bouche of raw mushrooms and shredded green vegetables was pleasant but unexciting (3/10). My tuna sashimi was served in three forms: conventional tuna, flesh from the back of the tuna, and hiro, the belly tuna; this was offered with two soy sauces. The belly tuna was superb, while oddly the normal tuna was merely pleasant; still, 6/10 for the tuna. “Warm sushi” of langoustine and eel both featured good rice and pleasant, lightly cooked ingredients, but neither langoustine nor eel were by any means the best I have tasted (4/10). Prawn tempura did not have the airy, gossamer texture that I have eaten in specialist tempura places in Tokyo, nor indeed did it compare that well with that at Sketch (2/10).
For main course, my wife’s salmon was pleasant but distinctly unremarkable, almost dull, and did not have the flavour of wild salmon as far as I could tell (2/10). I tried wagyu beef, which is imported from Japan and is £45. Unlike the dismal fake wagyu beef that one sees these days at some places, this was the real animal, with fatty, marbled and very tender beef, in this case light cooked rare and served on a bed of bamboo shoots. This was very good indeed (7/10, maybe 8/10) while rice was fine.