A decade ago we stumbled into an impossibly small bistro in Chagrin Falls, where we were blown away by the progressive Pan-Asian fare emanating from the equally small kitchen. True to its billing, Umami trafficked in foods redolent of racy flavors like tamari, dashi, ponzu, ginger and galangal. Back then, the swank but conservative village was awash in burgers, meatballs, steaks and ribs, and dishes such as seared albacore with ponzu sauce, coconut curry-spiked mussels and wasabi-crusted halibut proved a refreshing, even exciting, departure.
The decade may have changed, but Umami has not. And why should it, given its matchless track record for keeping every seat in the house filled — month in and month out — for this many years. Granted, there are only 28 seats, but still, the legacy put in place by previous chef Matthew Anderson set the amenable eatery on a path of continued prosperity. Subsequent chefs have endeavored largely to stick to the same script by proffering Asian-fusion menus with throughlines that stretch clear back to those earliest versions.
Of course, what felt fresh and distinctive 10 years ago can come across as familiar — or worse, stale — in the present day. Fortunately, chef Andrew Nichols keeps things interesting with daily specials that follow the seasons if not necessarily the latest culinary trends.
Swimmingly fresh fish has always been a core principle at Umami and that has not changed. That fish appears on both the regular and features menus in the form of sashimi, sushi rolls, poke and entrees built using yellowfin tuna, yellowtail, salmon, scallops, cod, sea bass and more.
In terms of easygoing starters, the pakora ($11) is a can't-miss. A heaping mound of crispy-fried cauliflower and onions is arranged on a bed of arugula. The craggy, crunchy bite-size nuggets come alive when dipped into the vibrant and minty chutney, and eating them becomes almost as involuntary as breathing. The crash comes just moments later when a platter of potstickers ($12) lands on the table. Wan, floppy and barely warm, the dumplings clearly were sitting around before finding their way to us. Making matters worse was yet another arugula cushion that only exacerbated issues with texture and temperature.
Warm up with a wholesome bowl of carrot-ginger soup or a classic (if salty) miso ($7) studded with sliced shiitakes and cubes of soft tofu. There are no surprises, twists or upgrades in an autumnal beet salad ($9) — unless you count a discouraging scarcity of goat cheese as a surprise. It was as if the kitchen sensed a looming shortage and began rationing the stuff as though it were a precious commodity. Those creamy orbs are paired with pickled red beets, nutty pepitas and lightly dressed arugula and microgreens.
The namesake umami is on full display in a hat-size bowl of udon ($30). Yes, you read that right, 30 dollars for a bowl of udon. I won't attempt to justify that price, but I will say that it's a savory pastiche starring high-quality Pat LaFrieda steak, earthy wild mushrooms, bright greens and fat and chewy noodles, all bobbing in a dark and brooding beef soup.
Some of the dishes are less elegant in preparation and presentation. We enjoyed the boldly flavored, mildly spiced yellow curry sauce in the chicken curry ($28), but there was so much of it that it threatened to spill over the sides of the plate. The ratio of onions to chicken was lopsided in the wrong direction, and the addition of whole cherry tomatoes felt clumsy. The white meat chicken was overcooked and the accompanying black rice, while pleasantly nutty, proved less effective at soaking up sauce.
Despite the absence of a bar, Umami manages to turn out creative, well-mixed cocktails like the Winter Warmer ($12), made with whiskey, amaretto and bourbon maple syrup. While perhaps better suited to summer, the sake-fueled Saketini ($12) fits the Asian vibe. The concise but well-selected wine list features fish-friendly whites by the glass, meat-appropriate reds by the pour and enough moderately priced bottles to meet most tastes and budgets.
With fewer than 30 seats, reservations are always strongly encouraged. We got tucked into one of the two snug window seats up front, each furnished with cushions, pillows and even blankets. It's a perfect perch for canoodling couples, but it took our server nearly 15 minutes to discover our presence because we were concealed by standing diners waiting for seats. After that, it was smooth sailing. The dim, trim and bustling space feels clubby in all the right ways — like a fashionable dinner party for you and 27 friends.