First Look: Umi
Chef Fuyuhiko Ito is back in Buckhead
If you were a regular at either of the former MF Sushi locations, you're well acquainted with chef Fuyuhiko Ito's excellent sushi and endless amusement. MF Buckhead closed in 2011, Ito set out to open Umi with his wife, Lisa. Fans — myself included — awaited his solo debut with excitement and a bit of cynicism. Would people get it or would it falter like MF Buckhead?
Umi's co-owners Farshid Arshid and Charlie Hendon took a great chef (he's also a part owner), and gave him an equally impressive venue. Located just across the courtyard from the entrance to Chop's, Umi's facade is bare-bones with nothing flashy to draw your attention to the entrance. It feels underground, like the kind of place you have to knowingly seek to find. Arshid and Hendon worked closely with artist Todd Murphy to conceptualize and implement Umi's design. There's a palpable buzz and sexiness that makes you feel like you're anywhere but Atlanta. Maybe inside the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas? The Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach? Certainly not down the street from a Cheesecake Factory. If King + Duke is where the old money congregates, you'll find the young, beautiful, and chic at Umi, including Colin Farrell, who has been a regular while shooting in Atlanta. Everyone seems to know everyone and it's not uncommon for people to hover around each other's tables like they are at a nightclub.
A cocktail area with low, avant-garde tables and chairs sits to the right of the hostess stand. Dapper mixologists tend the small bar where you'll find Andy Minchow, formerly of Holeman and Finch, temporarily slinging libations while he puts the finishing touches on his own place, Ration & Dram. There is a well-curated list of sakes to choose from, including one for $400 per bottle. The beer list, with only three or so choices and none for the serious Japanese craft beer lover, needs work. Umi's bar area is separated from the dining room with a thick wood wall where inset glass boxes display gnarled pieces of what looks like driftwood. Immense Sputnik chandeliers with gray bulbs twinkle overhead. The 23-foot custom white oak sushi bar, where Ito holds court, is the focal point of the restaurant. The light wood strikes a stark contrast against the glossy charred cypress walls. Large black-and-white photos of rural Japan set the simple tone of the place. It's all very luxurious, Zen yet edgy, without feeling like it's trying too hard.
The menu is traditionally formatted with appetizers, mains, sushi, and sashimi and holds many dishes made famous by Nobu. In the starters, there's the ubiquitous hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi with sliced jalapeños, which is good but not exciting. A favorite, the tempura uni tastes like the sea's answer to fried ice cream. The uni is wrapped in minty shiso leaves, battered, and fried. Each tiny bite-size piece is dry with no traces of oil — a sign of a deft hand — and the flavors all melt together with a quick swipe in the accompanying lemony ponzu sauce. Umi's edamame are nutty and addictive. They reminded me why I used to love them so much when I was a kid. The charred and snappy shishito peppers drenched in a sweetish soy sauce mixture also hold the same addictive quality. One of the best things on the appetizer list is the agedashi tofu. Each cube of silky tofu is encased in a thin fried crust that best resembles the top of well-executed crème brûlée. It's custard-like and slithers down your throat seductively. One of the only misses was the madai (sea bream) carpaccio. The slabs of white mild fish were drenched in so much olive oil and citrus that the flavors were lost.
Other Nobu-esque dishes such as the black miso cod and spicy shrimp tempura grace the entrée sections. The cod would have benefitted from a longer marinade because the miso didn't fully permeate the fish, leaving it underseasoned. However, the hearty portion of shrimp is excellent. Each one has a crackly thin coating drenched in a creamy sauce with a surprising amount of heat. A trio of sizzling scallops arrives in a tiny cast-iron dish set atop a burner. The sizzling sauce smacks you in the face with fresh ginger and soy before you even bite into the super tender flesh.
Ito's chefs exhibit superior knife skills and each preparation makes you feel like they have a great deal of respect for the product. However, the rice is where Ito falters. Sushi rice should be warm. This rice is too chilled and a bit dry. Perhaps it is the right temperature at the sushi bar? It also lacks seasoning. Ideal rice should be slightly sour and sweet from the rice wine vinegar. Despite my nit-picking, the quality of the fish has been superb and the selection varied. You can go the nigiri route à la carte or get the relatively affordable chef's assortment. There is also a small selection of new-style nigiri that is seasoned with soy sauce and slightly cooked. There are rolls, too — both old-style like ume (sour pickled plum) and the more slutty varieties such as spider rolls.
Ito's wife, Lisa, is the lead on pastry. She has a delicate and gifted touch when it comes to sweets. There are green tea soufflés and a pecan chocolate version with caramel sauce and Japanese coarse salt. My favorite, however, is the yuzu meringue. A citrusy little yuzu cake is topped with ice cream encased in cloud-like meringue. It is the perfect bite to end such a meal — not heavy, but bright and light.
The pace of service can be inconsistent. There can be huge lags in between rushes of food, but the servers are all very kind and professional. I found the owners to be circulating the room checking in on guests constantly throughout both of my visits. Even with the hiccups, Arshid, Hendon, and Ito seem to have a hit on their hands. If Ito gets his rice right, there may be a new king of sushi in town.