Sunday, December 17, 2006

Dining Review: Umami, San Francisco

The Marina has a new contender for the art of Asian fusion, and it's name is Umami. The former Yoshida-Ya, famous for it's various meat skewers and vast seating is no more. Instead, the building has been gutted, redone, and become an edgy, dark fusion of ultra lounge and restaurant.

First, it's impossible to discuss this pace without commenting on décor. It's phenomenal: every detail has been paid attention to. Yes, it's very much on the dark side, but the rice paper wall paper, the rich cherry wood floors and tables and the subtle sandal wood accents are great. The place is more bar than restaurant, at least on the ground floor, and they favor high tables with some of the best stools ever made: woven leather seats, plentifully padded, and mounted on wrought iron stems with fantastic footpegs. Lots of small candles made the dark room alight with small intimate pools.

One other note, and a strange one for a dining review: the bathrooms. They have to be seen to be believed. Like the rest of Umami, they are dark beyond belief. Adding to the mystery is the piped in sounds of what seems to be a "how to learn Japanese" tape: voices, speaking a word or phrase in English, followed by another voice repeating it in Japanese. In a dark, small room, it's eerie. The sink, however, is worth the trip: looking like a long water-work piece of slate, it's just perfect to see.

Ok, enough of the odd stuff. The food is, as our server emphasized, not fusion. Instead, like Betelnut, it tries to offer key dishes from all Asian cultures. Sushi, Korean barbecue, Dim Sum, and Pho were all on the menu, as were other salads and appetizers. This is definitely an Asian tapas approach, and meant to have small dishes. We tried the Imperial Rolls, along with the chicken skewers and some sort of meatballs. The food was under whelming: most of the cooked pieces were either overcooked, too hot, or too spicy. The meatballs were the strangest ones: they tasted like no beef we had ever had, and the waiter later informed us it was a mix of pork and beef. Still, that flavor, not entirely pleasant, was not what we expected.

A few other notes:
- The tea was great, and they kept it coming. Genmai for me!
- The heat was out. Blew just after they opened, last week. It'll be at least a week until it's fixed, and it's COLD in there. Combined with the dark, and dining in your jacket/coat, it's not a good combo.
- The downstairs is MUCH more bar than restaurant: it's loud, crowded, and not my scene. Younger people might like it, though the lack of light would make it a challenge for singles scoping.
- The Sushi "bar" is three stools to the right as you walk in. It used to to be the coatroom in the old Yoshida-Ya. My advice is for them to chuck the bar, and put in some more seats, lounge style, for the clientèle they are aiming for.

Umami is no Yoshida-Ya, nor is it trying to be. They just opened, so maybe they'll work the kinks out, but it's definitely better as a bar right now. The money they poured into the place is clearly substantial; I hope on the trendy center of Union and Webster they get the clientèle to pay it off. For now, worth seeing, but not staying.

Food: 3 Stars
Service: 3 Stars
Ambience: 4 Stars
Overall: 3 Stars.

No comments: