This was the first time that I have tried the full tasting menu at Umu. Since head chef Yoshinori Ishii trained at Kitcho in Kyoto, the grand dame restaurant of kaiseki, it seemed overdue for me to see what he could do with this most elaborate of Japanese menu forms.
The meal began with line-caught Cornish squid, topped with roe and accompanied by a micro salad. The squid looked excellent and so it was, fresh and without a hint of chewiness (easily 16/20). Next was freshly made warm tofu with Icelandic sea urchin, an umami-rich dish if ever there was one. I still prefer Hokkaido sea urchin, but this was certainly good (15/20). The was followed by a clear broth in which was a piece Japanese beef, in this case A5 grade from Gunma prefecture north of Tokyo. The soup was fine and the beef well marbled, but I think it is inherently difficult to taste Japanese beef outside of Japan if you have eaten it there. The issue is that the exported beef firstly is rarely the very best, and anyway is necessarily vacuum packed, which affects its texture. So for me this was fine but not a patch on the glorious examples of wagyu I have eaten in Japan (14/20).
The first of two sashimi courses was a prettily presented dish of plaice cut so thin that it was translucent, served with a particular piece of the fish on one side. This kind of presentation is sometimes done with fugu, though plaice does not have any of the associated frisson of danger that goes with fugu. It had good flavour and texture, and was certainly attractively set out (15/20). Next was a mixed plate of sashimi, the fish all from Cornwall, and indeed all caught by the same fishing boat: a selection of John Dory, streaked gurnard, sea bream and red mullet. The red mullet was particularly nice, and the gurnard was very good too; apparently it has a superior flavour to regular gurnard (16/20).
Smoked wild lobster was served in a broth with mushrooms, potatoes and ginko nuts. The bowl was attractively presented inside a wooden box filled with autumn leaves. The lobster was tender and I liked the broth, which had plenty of flavour (16/20). The final savoury course was woodcock, simple char-grilled and served with a sauce of its own liver. This is a powerfully flavoured game bird, and was very precisely cooked here, the sauce working well with the meat (16/20). As usual at the end of the savoury section of a kaiseki meal there was a bowl of rice, in this case topped with bottarga (grey mullet roe). Due to a time constraint we had to skip dessert on this occasion.
This was certainly a very enjoyable meal, the chef happy to patiently explain the details of the meal. We had just water to drink. I didn’t see the bill as I was being taken by a friend, but it would presumably have been the cost of the menu plus a bottle of water, plus service i.e. around £180 per head. This is obviously quite a lot, but much less than you can pay in Japan, and there was clearly a lot of effort going on here in terms of both the sourcing and the preparation of the dishes. If you went for a cheaper menu option then a typical cost per head might be around £95 all in. Umu is the closest you are going to get to an authentic Kyoto kaiseki experience in London.Book