Take a look behind the scenes at Umai's kitchen in our slideshow.
A bowl of ramen — its thick, almost nutty broth steaming up from the table — sat in front of me at Umai Japanese Restaurant on my first visit. There aren't that many places in town to get ramen, especially good ramen; I was excited. As I dove straight into it, disregarding how hot it was in simple pursuit of the eggy noodles and that rich broth, I found myself mystified as to why more Japanese restaurants don't serve the stuff.
If your experiences dining in Japanese restaurants are mainly confined to sushi, sashimi or hand rolls, Umai may present an interesting dining adventure: There is no sushi on the menu, save for five basic rolls, purposefully segregated on the menu into their own tiny box. The rest of the food that Umai serves is a blend of Japanese street food and what the restaurant calls "new" cuisine.
What exactly is Japanese street food? Ramen, for one. "Most Japanese don't eat sushi, you know," the restaurant's owner, Pierre Yu, laughed one day over the phone. "They eat things like shabu-shabu and basic noodles."
Ramen isn't remotely like the bright-orange packets of sodium-packed noodles we all bought by the pallet in college (don't act like you didn't eat Ramen noodles when you were a poor 20-year-old). The kind served at Umai and Kata Robata — a restaurant that reminds me of Umai plus sushi — is filled with fat egg noodles, vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, onions, spinach, corn or bean sprouts, and occasionally novelties like kamaboko (cakes made of pureed white fish, artistically decorated with pink swirls and ruffled edges), all swimming together in a meaty broth enhanced by that unmistakable earthy-sweet tang of miso.
At Umai — Japanese slang for "delicious" — there are a few different types of ramen available: spicy beef ramen with ribeye, spicy seafood ramen, and my favorite, the Umai ramen. It contains thick hunks of pork in its fragrant, fatty broth alongside plenty of spinach, bean sprouts and corn. This is the type of food a person wants when they're ailing, whether from a head cold, homesickness or heartache.
Ramen isn't the only authentic street food found here. Okonomiyaki — a seafood pancake that defies any other description — is the kind of raucous, rambunctiously assembled and flavored concoction that turns any notion of Japanese food as rigidly solemn stuff on its ear. With origins in Osaka, the okonomiyaki has a pancake-like base that holds toppings ranging from bacon to squid. Here at Umai, it's seafood all the way, with plenty of plump shrimp and crab under a blanket of bonito flakes, spicy Japanese mayonnaise and a sticky-sweet sauce called otafuku that tastes like the lovechild of Worcestershire and eel sauce. For only $6.50, this is one of the most enjoyable and fascinating dishes I've ever encountered in Houston.
When he opened Umai earlier this year, Pierre Yu decided to serve food that he feels is much closer to authentic Japanese food than what most Houston restaurants serve. "Houston is really lacking in traditional Japanese food," he laments.
He gets animated when describing his favorite restaurant in Tokyo: "It's just barstools and people making dumplings by hand. You have to wait an hour for the food, but it's worth it!" This street cuisine may not be new to Japan, but it's still new to Houston.
A real estate agent by trade, Yu, a self-described "world traveler and foodie," is originally from Hong Kong. His "new" cuisine — interpretations of Japanese classics, including everything from bento boxes on steroids (Umai calls them "Texas-sized") to appetizers like bright-green gyoza made with edamame and minty shiso hasami age — gives the menu a modern edge.
A consultant helped Yu design the menu for Umai, centering it around basics like ramen while introducing more distinctive dishes like katsu-kare and batayaki. Yu also made sure to hire someone to be the face of the restaurant, a Chinese-American dynamo named Anita who speaks fluent Japanese and dishes up advice to diners with a smile ("You'll like this nigori sake better; the bottle is bigger and it's cheaper!" — and she was right) as she greets patrons like they're family.
The interior is an extension of Yu's modern aesthetic, all mossy green walls and wood tones, with a dramatic red screen surrounded by black river rocks punctuating the room. It certainly doesn't scream "street food," but it's both slightly seductive and cozy at the same time, a rare feat to be sure.
The edamame gyoza charmed me on that first visit, and I've thought about them ever since. I love regular, greasy, crispy-bottomed, meat-filled gyoza as much as the next person. But these emerald-tinted treats with their thin, slightly crackly skin surrounding a filling of vegetables and rice are such a clever twist on an old favorite that I find myself recommending them to anyone who goes to Umai, vegetarian or not.
Equally alluring is the shiso hasami age, an item that's starting to crop up on other Japanese menus across the city. Chopped shrimp and shiitake mushrooms are mixed into a patty, wrapped with a shiso leaf and fried in a light tempura batter. Anything fried pretty much rockets to the top of my go-to list, and this dish is no different. What makes it special, however, is that dark green shiso leaf. Its minty, herbal flavor prevents the dish from being too heavy or fatty. This might sound like it wouldn't pair well with shrimp or mushrooms, but it works: It's simultaneously refreshing, briny, earthy and sweet, with an irresistible crunch from the batter.
I wish the same could be said of the shrimp shumai – fluted dumpling squares surrounding diced shrimp – that were delivered to the table still cold inside. Like any restaurant, Umai has the occasional stumble. Mochi ice cream balls with an incredibly mealy exterior and a dish of white fish batayaki that was nearly too salty to eat were among the offenders, but Yu already seems aware of these things, as he offhandedly mentioned on the phone, without prompting: "We recognize that we need to make our food more consistent, and we're working on that." He further sighed, "There are things we'd like to do — we'd like to make hand-made noodles and we'd like to break down whole pigs and use the bones — but it's hard to do right now." A businessman first, Yu knows that the demand for such items needs to be there before the volume can exist.
I recommend trying the "sets" Umai offers during lunch and dinner in the form of the aforementioned "Texas-sized bento boxes." You can order most items a la carte, but for only a few dollars more you can splurge and get the set. And it's worth it.
Each set comes with a salad coated with your typical ginger dressing, a bowl of silky miso soup, a bowl of white rice and three "appetizers" that change depending on the whims of the kitchen. I quite like the adventure of never knowing what's going to come out on the tray in the three small appetizer bowls. One day, it could be a mild dish of pickled cabbage, the next it could be a bowl of sauteed eggplant in inky tentsuyu sauce. My favorite has been a cold salad of noodles, bean sprouts and carrots drizzled with an invigorating vinegar dressing.
Perhaps the best "set" I've tried so far is the least Japanese-sounding dish on the entire menu: a breaded pork chop in curry sauce, or katsu-kare. Breaded pork cutlets – called tonkatsu – have been popular in Japan since the late 1800s, when they seem to have been created as a means of catering to Westerners' palates. It's similar to a piece of schnitzel or milanesa, but breaded with enjoyably crunchy panko instead of standard bread crumbs. Topped with a thick, ginger-based curry sauce that tastes vaguely Indian, the delicious katsu-kare embodies the non-traditional approach that Yu has taken in Houston with Umai by offering traditional Japanese food in a city saturated with "authentic" cuisine. It may sound like a paradox, but that's the beauty of the place. That, and the wonderful food itself, which seems to be Yu's guiding principle.
"Life is short," he laughs. "Might as well enjoy good food."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.