Umu, Lunch Carte Restaurant Review, February 2010

Posted on: February 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Umu, the elegant, sophisticated restaurant off Berkeley Square, is unique amongst London’s Japanese restaurants for specializing in the cuisine of Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital. Since opening in September 2004, Umu has achieved acclaim for the outstanding quality of its food, the highest distinction coming with a Michelin Star in January 2005.

Located at one end corner of a Mayfair mews and accessed by a narrow lane off Bruton Street, Umu is so secluded and tranquil as to be almost un-noticeable. Its relatively narrow dark glass frontage is masked still further by heavy net curtains, whilst the wenge timber and bronzed finished exterior paneling feature a recessed security pad which is pressed to open a sliding door. All these features exude an air of discrete exclusivity

This feeling is confirmed once inside the restaurant where the opulence of design of Tony Chi has been given full rein: Rich dark wood offset by large mirrors line a high ceilinged room which benefits from subtle spotlighting: An overhead feature of individually crafted and hung pieces of Murano glass adds a very modern note.

Seating for 56 covers is on comfortable coffee leather seats and low backed ebony velvet banquettes. Strangely, the wenge effect tables, arranged in a line opposite the sushi bar, are not as well spaced as one might expect for a restaurant of this quality

General Note: For more information on wenge see:

In line with its name which means “born of nature,” Umu’s dishes exhibit a purity of taste and delicacy of texture befitting their high quality ingredients. Wild fish and shellfish are flown in from the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. Some of the world’s finest vegetables are sourced from the Kyoto region; where cultivation benefits from fertile soil and fresh, soft water, the latter also being imported for the making of tofu.

Whilst preparation is intensive, cooking of the mainly seasonal ingredients is minimal. Flavourings are limited, and, when spices and herbs are used, they elevate but never overwhelm. Dipping sauces are preferred so that the main ingredients stand out, unadulterated. Low in salt and fat and therefore very healthy, dishes often come with leaves and flowers to heighten their natural element.

Ichiro Kubota’s family background and five years experience at the prestigious Tsuruya restaurant in Kyoto, made him ideally placed for the position of Executive Chef: His menu structure includes both classical and modern elements (a reflection also of his time at Michelin starred kitchens in France.)

In addition to the carte of appetizers, sashimi, sushi and mains, UMU showcases kaiseki menus. Deriving from the early practice of Buddhist monks who put a warm rock (seki) on their stomach to help them resist hunger pains, the word kaiseki refers to cuisine designed to gently satisfy with a series of small tasting dishes. Originally planned as fine-dining for emperors but adapted later for the merchant classes, kaiseki involves a series of carefully designed courses, where flavours, textures and colours are all in harmony and where seasonality and variety of ingredients are paramount

General Note: For more background on kaiseki see:

This is Japanese cuisine at its most refined, necessitating – as with the other dishes – skilled preparation and beautiful artistic presentation. Originally vegetarian in origin, Umu’s modern kaiseki menus include meat and seafood. Just as Kyoto food accommodates all social groups, so UMU’s menu offers humbler but no less delicious dishes of vegetables, rice, miso soup and tofu just as much as luxuries such as lobster and Wagyu beef.

An inspection meal saw dishes chosen from the carte, beginning with three appetizers.

Chu toro salad comprised a tartare of tuna back and belly, mixed with pear to offset the richness of tuna belly, and bound with quail’s egg. Lotus roots, balsamic oil, black sesame seeds, Japanese pickles and cashew nuts added contrasting colour and texture that enhanced the dish. Delicate shrimp marinated in sweet vinegar and soya came with a luxurious garnish of sake jelly and caviar which added the correct savoury note.

A more robust dish saw grilled aubergine, Shigiyaki style, topped with minced quail and duck, leek and sweet red pepper.

The next course was a chef’s sashimi selection of striped and flat amberjack, mackerel, salmon, tuna belly and sea bass, all with their distinct tastes. The near transparent slices of clean tasting sea bass, to be dipped in ponzu, provided a contrast to the dense textured, oily mackerel and salmon.

Sushi, came in two selections. Modern versions matched eel with garlic and parsley, and blue crab with pine nuts and garlic. Served warm to enhance their flavour, these innovative combinations showed how attempts at fusion can be successful. Hotati, (diver scallop), akami (tuna back), and salmon aburi, (seared salmon) represented more classical sushi offerings. For both types, rice vinegar and mirin used in the cooking of the rice helped to provide the correct balance of moisture and lightness,

A popular main course of grilled skill fish teriyaki, perfectly timed to retain succulence, with citrus flavoured grated radish and fresh wasabi was a delightful balance of savoury and sweet, soft and crunchy

Grade six Wagyu beef in a hoba leaf, arrived on its own boxed grill, enabling the diner to cook the meat to their liking. Famed for its rich taste and melting texture, the beef did not disappoint and provided a fitting climax to the meal.

The limited dessert menu makes the most of oriental ingredients such as white miso, green tea, and fresh fruit. Although not the highlight of the meal, competently executed western style chocolate fondant and chestnut Mont Blanc were paired with white miso ice cream and mandarin and mango sorbet respectively.

The sake list is extensive, the best in the Europe with over 160 different types.

General Note: For background information on sake see:

The wine list also offers a comprehensive choice of over 800 bins. This is to be expected of a Marlon Abela owned establishment, given that his other Michelin restaurant, the Greenhouse, has the finest and most extensive cellar in the capital. UMU’s charming and attentive assistant head sommelier, Arthur de Gaulejac, was on hand to give essential guidance. The flight of two sakes, Riesling and red Burgundy chosen to accompany the dishes proved to be a master class in food and wine pairing.

Service is knowledgeable and quietly efficient. In particular, the European waiting staff is adept in describing the multi- component Japanese dishes. Overall, Umu runs like a well oiled machine, but one with personality and allure. This is more likely to be in evidence in the more relaxed atmosphere of the evenings rather than the formality of lunch service

Much has been written about Umu’s prices which are, admittedly, steep. Kaiseki menus range from £65 to £135, and main dishes from £14 to £57, the latter being for “Grade 9” wagyu beef

General Note: For an explanation of the wagyu beef grading system see:

and for a general overview of wagyu beef see:

Sushi is priced per piece, peaking at £8. However, these need to viewed in the context of superb ingredients – often imported because they are the best – skilled labour intensive preparation, and highly professional service. The weekday set lunch, based on a Bento box formula and including soup and dessert, is more affordable, whilst the carte and Kaiseki menus should be reserved for special occasions. Quality has always come at a price, but it is one that many diners – and not just corporate ones – consider well worth paying.