The first impression one gets upon entering Umu is one that isn’t too dissimilar from the aforementioned restaurants. Pushing the button that activates the door, the attractive hostess, the dark, stylish room all have a slight hint of the westernised “Japanese” restaurants. Once you sit down however things begin to look different.
First of all, the chef here is Japanese and has worked a bit all over the world. His career includes stints as the personal chef of Japan’s attaché at the UN and Morimoto to name but the last two posts he held. Having looked over Morimoto’s kaiseki menus, he was the first to serve kaiseki cuisine in London.
Therefore, the most interesting way to go about ordering here would probably be one of the Kaiseki menus, especially, if this is your first time here. Not only will this give you a good idea of what Kaiseki cuisine is about, but it will also make something else clear: very few Japanese restaurants in the UK use produce of the quality found at Umu.
Talking to the chef reveals why there is such a marked difference. Instead of working with the standard suppliers, he works directly with fishermen in the South-West and shows a fascination for produce that is only found too rarely in the UK. Mikael Jonsson and Stephen Harris go to similar lengths, but as things currently stand they form a triumvirate that is far from being the norm. At Umu most of the fish is killed using ike jime, a Japanese method of fish butchery that must have estranged the fishermen of Devon and Cornwall when they learned how to do it. Through a small incision at the top of the fish’s spine, a metal rod is inserted, which paralyses it and thus produces a texture that is inimitable. For someone to go to such lengths in a country which has so few people who appreciate such perfectionism is remarkable and worth mentioning.
The result is beautiful. Sea bass, turbot or chu-toro sushi are the best we’ve had in London, whilst uni (albeit imported from the States) is so sweet and creamy that it is reminiscent of those found around Santa Barbara. And yet, sushi is not all they do at Umu.
Equally remarkable is a dish such as turnip mash with black truffle. Incredibly simple in appearance, this dish features a tower of turnip mash which is filled with an intense black truffle coulis. Topped with a few slivers of the precious mushroom, this is a lesson in minimalism. The subtle earthiness of the turnips pairs remarkably well with the intensity of the truffles. Slightly smoky aromas round it off, and make this a remarkable dish.
A final element on the menu worth pointing out is the eel. Bought in alive, this wild eel from Wales is served in a variety of classical ways. The simplest is however the most successful, given that the product here is of unusually high quality for Europe. Simply grilled over the robata grill and glazed with teriyaki sauce, this is remarkable. Sweet, smoky, firm, yet incredibly soft and juicy; eel such as this is a real treat.
Umu can easily be written off as another expensive, flashy Japanese restaurant. For those who don’t mind the bill and are ready to approach the restaurant with an open mind, you will most likely have a meal here that will be among the best Japanese experiences in London.