Sunday, June 23, 2024

Quail, roe and uni at Umami in North Cambridge. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Remember when a $20 hamburger or $100-a-person fine-dining experience seemed absurd? While it’s still worthy of an eyebrow raise, it’s not far-fetched or too exceptional. How about if I told you a $158 meal-for-one was a bargain? An omakase seating at Umami in North Cambridge is around that much during the week and slightly more on weekends; that may make your eyes bug out some, but compare it with a similar experience at renowned upscale sushi bar O Ya in Boston’s Leather District and you’ll see what I was coming to. For your hard-earned, special-evening-out dollars (and for me and an omakase-minded friend that I go with, that’s like once a year, or every other) you get an 18-course meal in which every dish is prepared before your eyes with an explanation of each course and where it came from, sea to seat. It’s a unique, personalized experience at an L-shaped bar with chefs toiling in plain sight while engaging with the audience – not quite the interaction of a Bisuteki, but let that give you a sense.

It’s a tight seating arrangement, but there’s no elbow bashing – unless, perhaps, you’re next a Bruins prospect. Before I get into the dining experience, some housecleaning:

The name “Umami” is a Japanese term for a flavorful seasoning or taste that is savory. It’s an apt moniker for a place chef-owner Gary Lei opened to rave reviews in 2019 in the space that had been the revered Hana Sushi for more than 30 years. Then, of course, Covid hit. Lei and crew did takeout, but omakase is an experience that cannot be put in a box and delivered; now they’re back with the same dining experience that made them newsworthy before the pandemic.

“Omakase” is, in Japanese, essentially “I leave it to you,” meaning the chef makes a menu and you somewhat blindly eat what they’re dishing. What Lei dishes is pretty intoxicating, fresh, subtle and sublime.

A serving of amberjack, or kanpachi, at Umami. (Photo: Tom Meek)

On my last pilgrimage there, the evening began with a perfectly shucked oyster atop an artfully arranged bed of pebbles and eggs (quail and roe) and uni (sea urchin) with capers on a sculpturally bent spoon. It was delicious, and went down too quick and easy; I wanted seconds, but there were more servings on the way that included yellowfin (hamachi), fatty bluefin (toro), salmon (sake), red snapper (madai) and amberjack (kanpachi) preparations, each one little pieces of art with accents of roe, capers, pickled onions and more. It feels cliché to say they “melt in your mouth,” but it’s true, and after putting each down me and my cohort looked at each other with a wistful grin of smug elation. It’s a two-hour culinary odyssey that we wanted never to end, but as it did, up came a dessert in a little wood crate of smoking dry ice. In the glass was something of a whipped flan – creamy, light vanilla heaven. Like the 17 items before, I wanted a double. The flavors, quality control in selection and meticulous preparation (the rice: room temperature, not sticky or heavy, just perfect) really are value-adds worth every penny. Most nights there’s a special option (because it goes to 19). On our visit, for 20-ish dollars, it was a special uni preparation. In general, I’m not a big urchin lover, but as my friend said, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” The plump, golden yellow urchin billowing out of its seaweed wrap, severed cool at near room temp, will probably go down as the best urchin I’ve ever had. I’m glad I did it, and that’s one of the great, empowering things about omakase: You try new and different things without much thinking.

The meal comes with various sake pairings beginning in the $20 range and going up depending on the number of flights; there are select reserve options too. My friend and I, given the heat wave, opted for a bottle of sauvignon blanc, a perfect match for a perfect outing.

Umami (2372 Massachusetts Ave., North Cambridge)


Cambridge writer Tom Meek’s reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.