Unhinged greed always ends up eating itself, but before it does, it consumes the rest of us too. That doesn't bode well, in our new plutocracy, for anyone, particularly Madison's kitchens, now that the city is pretty much under siege. There is no question that a number of our best restaurants will close by the end of this year, as local discretionary income goes into a free fall.
The only real option for new restaurants is to keep prices low, and the recently launched Umami on Willy Street represents a smart template for tough times. The key concepts: Focus on one manageable culinary theme, keep things simple, and keep things cheap. And then make them cheaper.
Following that model, Umami is one very savvy restaurant that meets all its pared-down goals, starting with the space itself. Situated across from Madison Sourdough (so you can always grab one of the best sandwiches in town if you're still hungry after dinner), Umami comes housed in what looks, deceptively, like granny's homey/homely heartland bungalow. But walk inside and you're in a parallel universe granny wouldn't recognize: a streamlined, Zen-like L-shaped dining room that's all textured white walls, dark wood banquettes and a long hipstery bar featuring 12 sakes.
You have to give Umami credit for that smart renovation, clearly done with limited funds. But you have to give it more credit for the very affordable and equally streamlined menu. The focus here is on pork buns, dumplings and ramen, and while this isn't going to satisfy David Chang fans, or come up to the level of yet another Momofuku, almost everything we sampled was good (or at least good value for the money), starting with those signature pork buns.
Pork buns have become 2011's answer to the cupcake, a driving trend, so there are a lot of variations on the theme. And Umami's version stands up to the competition. The buns themselves ($6 for two), though marginally too thick, are perfectly pillowy. And they wrap around tender, appropriately fatty slices of pork belly, pickled baby cucumber and scallions, all dressed in a sweet but not cloying hoisin sauce. Our first round of buns featured far more cucumber than pork, so they pretty much tasted like pickled cucumber buns, and the subtle meat got drowned out by all that acidic pickling. But the trick is to halve the bun, chuck some of those cucumbers and dress the thing yourself, loading up your split bun with the pork if you're a hungry carnivore. Or maybe just wait for another round. Because our second plate of buns featured what seemed like a lot more of that melting belly.
If that borders on too meaty, the house tuna poke is very good - a mound of sushi-grade ahi tuna sweetened with soy and paired with seaweed salad and apple cucumber slaw. The only caveat: It needs a bit more of the pork rind that adds the crucial texture and greasy kick.
What else? An apple walnut frisee (small portion runs $6) was perfectly respectable, a clean, bright toss of tart apple, dried cranberries, walnuts and sliced goat cheddar in a light pomegranate mint dressing. And Umami's ramen, one big meal in a bowl (and an especially beautiful ceramic artisanal bowl), couldn't really be better for the price (an average of $10) or, well, for ramen.
In fact, the kitchen's rendition was an elegant, complex take on what can be a very simple, and ultimately boring, dish. The miso ramen starts with miso chicken broth and then throws in ramen noodles (a bit overcooked), egg, beautiful tender strips of marinated chicken, bamboo shoots, nori, bean sprouts and green onions. Dress it up with your choice of additional toppings ($2 for pork belly and $1.50 for butter corn) and you get a knockout ramen featuring a tumble of harmonious flavors. Just as good is the tonkotsu ramen, which comes with slices of roast pork.
The only things that could use some tweaking at Umami are desserts (the crème brûlée, a trend way past its prime, and an ice cream sandwich done in by chalky chocolate cookies). And the summer rolls, like all summer rolls, are an indistinct waterlogged wrap of tasteless vegetables, though the peanut sauce helps.
Oh yeah, and the dumplings. There are pork and chive dumplings, chicken and chive dumplings, chicken and shitake mushroom dumplings, and veggie dumplings. While these are all fine, the flavor of those busy fillings are so muddled you can't tell which is which. But at $8 for a large plate, maybe it doesn't really matter these days.