Monday, July 28, 2014

Restaurant Review: Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar

Let me give you a little background. I have been to Umami twice one year apart for a yearly large group.

I want so very much to like this place. I used to live in Japantown in San Francisco where there are amazing ramen joints cheek by jowl. I have high requirements for my ramen.

The first time I went, one year ago, when I sat down the table was quite sticky. Like, this hasn't been wiped down in a few days sticky. In a place where long noodles are slurped, and everything comes with a dipping sauce, good deep cleaning with a towel is required between every patron. This should really be done at every restaurant everywhere. I will admit, some of the stickiness could be due to the incredibly thick lacquer on the table reacting to hot dishes being placed on it. If that is the case you definitely shouldn't have those tables in a restaurant without tablecloths.

One year later I was hoping to give them a second chance.

The table was even stickier then the year before. I wiped it down with my napkin and some water. The stickiness felt hard and crunchy like it had been left to fester since the last time I was in. As I tried to spoon the broth, I needed to tip the bowl. This was nearly impossible to do without pulling so hard to free it from the table's glutinous grasp that you nearly dump the soup into your lap. Luckily one of my dining companions had figured out a twist and tip method, where you twisted the bowl hard enough to loosen it, then you tip it enough to spoon the broth. Thanks Jake.

Twist and Tip. Twist and Tip. This is no way to live.

I elected to get the Restaurant Week meal which started with Buns, dumplings and a bowl of Ramen with a Ice cream filled mochi. All this for $25. Another dining companion, the intelligent observer ordered buns, dumplings and a bowl of ramen off the regular menu.

First came the Buns, I got one Spicy pulled pork dumpling. The filling was great, very good flavor, nice level of spiciness. However the Mantou didn't seem particularly fresh, I don't know if they steamed a bunch off and let them sit around for too long or if they were buying in frozen ones (thats my guess), but I was fairly disappointed by the bun itself.

My intelligent observer received his nice order of two spicy pilled pork dumplings.

My four Pork and Chive dumplings were wonderful, very good filling, but clearly they had been out of the steamer for a few minutes too long, You can't really fault them though, we were in a group of 13 which makes timing that much more difficult.

My intelligent observer received his nice order of six dumplings and loved his as well

Finally my bowl of Tonkatsu ramen arrived. Traditional Tonkatsu ramen broth is one of the most luxurious and amazing broths I have ever tasted. It has to be simmered for more then 12 hours and is extremely labor intensive. The guys over at Serious Eats did a great piece about making great Tonkatsu Ramen broth: Please check it out.

The broth at Umami was... lacking. It didn't have the body or the complexity of a great Tonkatsu broth. Even worse, the first time I went in a year ago it was almost inedibly salty. After choking down a few spoonfuls I let the rest get scooped up by a server. I tasted a friend's Tonkatsu broth as they were taking mine away... perfectly seasoned.

This year it tasted, horror of horrors, that they may have added some cream to make the stock the correct smoky pale color rather then boil the broth for the more then 12 hours required for great tonkatsu broth. Umami doesn't make their own noodles, instead they contract RP's pasta, a local Italian pasta maker. They make great italian noodles and I love to pick up a package for dinner as often as possible! However in my mind, a great ramen shop should really be making their own noodles in-house by someone who only makes ramen noodles. It is an art and one that takes years to master.

My intelligent observer also got a bowl of Tonkatsu Ramen.

Finally the meal finished with an Ice Cream filled Mochi and a half. This was very tasty, and very familiar. I love to buy these at the store too! A 6 pack for 2.99 at Trader Joes!
I'm 99% sure this was the brand they were serving.

My intelligent observer was quite full, and to be honest so was I. Lets compare our meals.

He had 2 pork buns, I had 1. He had 6 dumplings, I had 4, we both had the same Ramen(similar portions) and I had $0.75 worth of Mochi. Lets look at the bills!

His bill Bun($7), Dumplings ($6), Ramen ($12) = $25
Mine was... wait $25?
If we had both gotten a different type of Ramen he would have paid a dollar less then me.

To me that just feels kind of... greasy. !!Maybe that's whats on the table, the owner's greedy grease!! Let me be clear, I wasn't unhappy with the amount of food I got for $25, it was a filling meal and not a bad price point (I wouldn't be back but it doesn't have anything to do with the price) But handing the regular menu out with this... "deal" for restaurant week just left me feeling a little taken advantage of.

I made sure we left a good tip with the server, even though there were some quiet mutterings around the table. All of these weren't things that the server could do anything about.

All over, if you haven't eaten anything but cup-a-soup ramen, this will be a world better, but if you've had great ramen in a major US city or in Japan, you may as well just stick with the dumplings.

Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar

Cost = $$ ($15-25)
Rating = Meh (1 Meh out of 4)

923 Williamson Street, Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608-819-6319

Hours: Mon to Thurs 5pm-10pm
Fri & Sat 5pm-11pm
Sun 5pm-9pm

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