Umami at Umai

Umai Japanese Restaurant (8400 Bellaire) may be located along Bellaire Boulevard, but the restaurant is mostly removed from the hurly-burly tumble and flow of Chinatown, being closer to Sharpstown instead of the epicenter of all things Asian at Beltway 8. And that's not the only thing that Umai is removed from. It's also removed from Houston ideals of what a Japanese restaurant should be.

What first struck me about the restaurant is that there is almost no sushi or sashimi on the menu. Instead, owner Pierre Yu focuses on serving more traditional Japanese food, whether it be comfort food or street food. (And let's be honest; usually comfort food and street food are the exact same thing.) But both Japanese street and comfort food are a rarity in Houston's Japanese restaurants, where sushi usually reigns supreme.

Ramen is an excellent example of the traditional Japanese comfort food served at Umai, the subject of this week's cafe review. The ramen here is equaled only by that at Kata Robata, another interesting Japanese restaurant in the sense that it serves far more than sushi and has a decidedly French twinge to its menu.

One of my favorite comfort-inspired dishes at Umai is the spicy yo tofu soup, a beast of a dish for only $6.50 that comes in a screaming hot Dutch oven, the cast iron ensuring that your soup won't cool off too quickly. The heat makes it a little difficult to eat at first, but the second it cools down you'll notice that there's another type of heat to contend with -- the menu isn't kidding when it says the soup is spicy.

Filled with vegetables and large chunks of tofu, the soup has a lot in common with the much milder Umai ramen, namely the broth. Umami is the Japanese word that describes the sensation of meaty, savory food. And although there's no meat in the rich, silky, almost nutty broth, it has umami in spades. Vegetarians could certainly be happy with the spicy soup, but carnivores would likely be equally pleased with the hearty stuff.

The noodles in the spicy yo tofu soup are different than the eggy noodles in the Umai ramen, however. These shiritaki noodles (also called yam noodles) are extremely thin and almost glassy, and they hide an interesting surprise: They're very low in carbohydrates, making the noodles ideal for those poor schmucks still suffering through the Atkins Diet. On the other hand, the delicate noodles excel at soaking up anything they're dropped into, which means the shiritaki noodles in Umai's spicy yo tofu soup are redolent and swollen with the rich broth.

I like to eat the broth as an "appetizer" to my meal, then take the noodles and vegetables home for the next day, when they make a stunning meal in and of themselves after a few minutes in the microwave.

For more photos from Umai's kitchen, check out our slideshow.

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Katharine Shilcutt