Umu has been trading for ten years now, tucked away in a quiet Mayfair mews, discreetly hidden behind a sliding door. In 2005 it was awarded a Michelin star that it has retained ever since. Since 2010 the chef has been Yoshinori Ishii, who has made more effort than his predecessor to source ingredients locally rather than importing them. He has gone to some lengths to do this, including training Cornish fishermen in the “ikejime” technique of killing a fish instantly, which is less stressful for the fish and better for its flavour. Mr Ishii cooked for nine years at the famous Kitcho in Kyoto before being chef to the Japanese embassy at the UN prior to moving to Umu. Some of the fruit and vegetables are sourced from the Nama Yasai farm in Sussex, which has a Japanese farmer and raises vegetables from varieties found in Japan. He is also a keen fisherman, and when I visited was on holiday fishing in Iceland.
The dining room is all wood panels and subdued lighting, with a proper hot towel to begin the meal, as is traditional. The chef is interested in pottery and designs and makes the chopstick rests himself in his own kiln. There are a lot of menu options, with plenty of à la carte choices. The top-priced menu is the £115 kaiseki, though a lunch option is available from as little as £25. I tried a bento box lunch and also a sashimi dish. The wine list was extensive, with over 1,100 different wines from around the world, and pages and pages of sake. Example wines included Henschke Pinot Gris Innes 2006 at £45 for a wine that retails at £25, J.J. Prum Kabinett 2012 at £65 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £17, and Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris Windsbuhl at £90 compared to a shop price of £31. Ravenau Blanchots 2005 was £489 compared to a retail price of £155, and Chateau Haut Brion 1989 was £2,750 for a wine that will set you back £1,178 in a shop.
A simple green salad to start was very good, with fresh leaves and a carefully balanced vinaigrette; it is tricky to mark things that are so simple, but you only have to try a salad at a chain restaurant to see that there is skill involved in getting it right, especially with the balance of the dressing and the quality of the oil and vinegar used (14/20).
The bento box had four elements, plus rice, pickles and miso soup on the side. Duck came with Japanese mustard and mizu nasu, the water aubergine from Kyoto, which had lovely and almost sweet flavour (16/20). Tempura of tiger prawn was reasonable, but the batter did not compare well with that I have eaten in specialist tempura restaurants in Japan (14/20). Sashimi of grey mullet and sea bass was very good, especially the mullet (15/20). Wild salmon caught in the river Severn was cured in kombu and shiso and was excellent, having very good flavour (16/20). I was initially disappointed to see “wasabi” that appeared to be from a tube (or possiby was frozen - either way it tasted disappointing), but when I commented on this a fresh wasabi root was grated and presented. It was good that they actually have real wasabi (in this case it is from the sole UK supplier), which is vastly superior to the coloured mustard and horseradish from a tube but they should really serve this without having to be asked. Sashimi of brill was sliced very thinly indeed and went well with the freshly grated wasabi.
Sorbet of red shiso was lovely, the texture silky. A selection of fruits was unusually good, the quality of the peaches, blackberry, greengage, apricot, red plum and mulberries very high, the blackberries in particular being lovely. Again it is hard to mark something like this, but the fruit was lovely and the texture silky (15/20).
Service was extremely good, attentive and friendly The bill came to £46 for one, with just water to drink. If you went in the evening and drank a decent bottle of wine then your bill would easily get to about £90 a head or more. This is certainly not cheap, but at least the ingredient quality is unusually high, and the chef is clearly making some real effort to source things as well as he can within the constraints of what is available in the UK.Book