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Dining with Woodene Merriman

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Past Reviews
Umi brings a sophisticated taste of Tokyo to Pittsburgh

Friday, April 07, 2000

By Woodene Merriman, Post-Gazette Dining Critic

In the Japanese coffee shop in the Hotel Okura in Tokyo, I had my first encounter with wasabi.

Anxious to try everything, I picked up that little green ball on my plate with my chopsticks and popped it into my mouth.

As I sputtered and coughed and reached for the water, the polite Japanese family at the next table snickered behind their menus.

That was the mid-1970s. In the years since, the Western world has embraced Japanese food -- especially sushi -- and I doubt that anyone would make that wasabi mistake today.

But is Pittsburgh ready for Umi? I think so. His Honor doesn't.

Umi is the new (since November) Japanese restaurant on the third floor above Soba Lounge. Both are part of the Big Burrito local restaurant group. Mr. Shu, formerly of the New Dumpling House and before that, Nobu in New York City, is the chef.

The best way to sample Mr. Shu's creations is the omakase, or multicourse meal created especially for you. It can cost $55, $75 and up for each person (and there's a minimum of two persons required). We went for the $55 deal, and put ourselves in Mr. Shu's hands.

First course: Yellowtail tartare with caviar. Each of us is served a bowl of crushed ice, with a smaller bowl in the center holding a soft, golden-tan ball of yellowtail tartare in what seems to be a little soy sauce. Also on the ice is a large mountain berry from Japan (it looks like a big raspberry but has a seed) as a palate cleanser, and a spike of green leaf for decoration. The yellowtail is delicious; even H.H. agrees. It's a small serving, but he stretches it out to three bites to savor the flavor.

Then he notices the menu. "Order this alone, and it costs $18.50," he says. "Imagine, $18.50 for this little bit of food. I can't believe it."

The man is a veteran of too many Pittsburgh restaurants where $18.50 buys enough for dinner and a take-home box to feed you for a week.

"But this is exquisite food, with very special, hard-to-get ingredients," I argue.

By now the second course, a small Japanese eggplant with honey miso sauce, sliced on the diagonal and sprinkled with sesame seeds, has arrived. Beautiful and wonderful. I have also hidden the bamboo-covered menu, so H.H. can't check prices.

As the courses come, each one is pretty as a picture, and delicious, too. Even H.H. admits it. Colorful flowers are plate decorations. I should have brought my camera -- paper-thin slices of fluke sashimi on a base of crisp greens, tuna sashimi, roasted black cod with a spicy miso sauce, a colorful array of assorted sushi and for dessert, chantilly cream with mixed fresh berries in a stemmed glass. Each course is small and delicate, but all together, it makes a fine dinner.

It seems so authentic, too -- except for the chantilly cream. When did chantilly, a French term meaning prepared or served with whipped cream, become Japanese?

It's not necessary to order the omakase to enjoy Umi, although that's the best way to see what the chef can do. Count it as the evening's entertainment as well as dinner, and it doesn't seem so expensive.

Some people stop into Umi just for sushi. Individually, they sell for $2.50 and up. There is a sushi bar for six, where you can watch Mr. Shu and his assistant, Daniel Cutshall, who lived in Japan for three years, at work. Or you can be served at the tables. The menu also offers a la carte soup, salad, appetizers and other Umi specials, including the courses in the omakase. You can order a traditional dinner that includes miso soup, salad and rice along with the entree. Dinner prices range from $16 for yaki-udon (noodles) to $26 for assorted sashimi.

To see what else Mr. Shu can do, we went back another night for teriyaki chicken and tempura dinners. The miso soup, served in Japanese wooden bowls, is a light, complex broth with bits of scallion. The salad is a shame -- lots of the white parts of iceberg lettuce, one small piece of tomato and one slice of cucumber with thick ginger and carrot dressing that's actually quite good. The tempura is a platter of assorted pieces of seafood and vegetables, including two jumbo shrimp, in a fragile, crisp coating. This is the best tempura batter I've had in Pittsburgh. The tempura sauce was accompanied by a ball of grated daikon (radish) and ginger to season it.

Teriyaki chicken arrives sizzling on a hot platter. The chicken breast has been cut into thin slices, has Umi's own teriyaki sauce over it, and is accompanied by broccoli and onion. The chicken is tender and nicely flavored by the teriyaki sauce. For dessert, ginger pear bread pudding sounds good but not very Japanese; in reality, it is underbaked.

The wine list is small but reasonably priced, with a selection of sakes, bubblies, reds and whites, as well as beers. A glass of Mark West chardonnay is $7.50, a glass of Albert Seltz gewurztraminer is $8.

The decor is minimal but pleasant and Japanese. You can sit at the sushi bar, at tables lining the walls, or, if you're nimble, at low tables on the floor. The service is friendly (they'll explain courses), the restaurant quiet and casual, and many of the patrons are knowledgeable about Japanese food. It's one of the few Pittsburgh restaurants where I've noticed more men than women. Two men next to us one evening, in jeans and casual shirts, talked computers and stock markets all through dinner.

We like the modern square dishes and the polished stones used as chopstick holders. But we had to laugh the night I put my used chopsticks on the salad plate headed back to the kitchen, and the waiter carefully placed them back on my chopstick holder. It's like the problem with forks in other restaurants; why can't I have clean chopsticks?

Coffee is served in sculptured, mug-like glasses that are attractive but too hot to hold.

One big drawback is the stairs. Umi has its own entrance. Enter, and you have 37 steps to climb. That immediately discourages some diners, I know.

But everyone who complains that Pittsburgh dining is not sophisticated, that all we have is red sauce Italian restaurants, should give Umi a try. If you can't or won't climb the stairs, the menu will be served to you in Soba Lounge.

5849 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside

Hours:Sunday, and Tuesday through Thursday, 5-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5-11 p.m.

The basics:Authentic Japanese menu of dinners, omakase (chef's meal creations), sushi and sashimi; parking in lot next door; seats 48, plus 6 at sushi bar; no smoking; two flights of stairs to reach restaurant; restrooms on same floor; not wheelchair accessible, but handicapped patrons can be served Umi menu downstairs in Soba Lounge; major credit cards; reservations recommended.

The last word: 3 1/2 stars

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