One of the facts about Japanese cuisine in the USA we've always lamented is that most restaurants are the same old sushi places with eerily similar menus. Sure, you may get lucky enough to find an odd bowl of ramen or some delicious tempura here or there, but odds are good that any given Japanese restaurant will have a menu similar to the rest.
It wasn't until I visited Japan, where I tasted so many other unique Japanese cuisines, that I realized how much we are missing in our own Japanese restaurants. Thankfully, many chefs have taken note of this as well and the under-represented foods of Japan are now getting their audience in the USA for the very first time.
In Pittsburgh, one restaurant that will be at the forefront of this blossoming trend is Lawrenceville's Umami. Themed after a Japanese izakaya (equivalent to our own alcohol-heavy gastropubs), this restaurant is one of just a few places in Pittsburgh where you can find some of the country's best entrees you've likely never heard of before.
Enjoying Specialty Spirits of Japan
As Umami is themed after the izakaya bar concept, it would be wrong of us to not first start with talking about the bar.
The fully stocked bar is one of main highlights of Umami, as they hold an impressive collection of sakes, shochu (low proof alcohol), Japanese beer, plus many more international spirits you'd expect to find at any of the best bars in the city. This makes for an impressive selection of cocktails and libations found nowhere else.
During our visit we tried two cocktails including Fizzy Lifting Drink, a barley shochu based cocktail with grilled pear and egg white (that was incredibly rich and creamy), as well as Tickle ‘n Giggle, a cachaça and basil cocktail (which tasted like an upscale mojito) that was accompanied by lychee pop rocks. The Fizzy Lifting Drink was definitely the favorite and is worth trying for those with an adventurous pallet looking for a new cocktail flavor.
Rather than pursuing more cocktails on our first visit, a beer combo caught my eye that was called The Lone Wolf and Cub. This was an 8 ounce pour of Kirin Ichiban with a chaser of sake and a shot of hibiscus syrup served in an eye dropper (available as the Falling Petal if you want to try a delicious sake on its own). Although I was never really a fan of drinking sake during my travels, this combination was too unique to pass up (and at $5 was a bargain worth sampling).
But what about the food menu?
Do Yourself a Favor and Try One of Everything
A visit to Umami is best served with an open mind and a hungry stomach as the menu is setup for you to enjoy a little bit of everything as you drink.
One of the most interesting things about Umami is that they have a fully functional robata grill- used to cook skewered meats and vegetables over hot coals. Most skewers range from $2-$3 each and come covered in a mildly tangy soy sauce.
Although you'd likely need ten or so skewers to make a full meal on their own, a small selection makes for a perfect appetizer to get started as you move on to a second course. We selected four, which included the bacon wrapped quail egg (the winner), pork belly, mushrooms, and shrimp, and was a decent cross-section of the menu; however, on our next visit we'll go for the whole fish option which at $15 is the best value in the house.
From there you can move on to the sushi, which includes sashimi, nigiri, temaki (conical handrolls), onigiri (riceballs), or chirashi (rice bowls) which are large enough to share with a few bites each. We opted to try the fluke with yuzukosho- a fermented citrus and chili sauce that is light flavor with an intense heat that will kick you in your face without the need for extra wasabi.
For the main courses we chose two of the yatai (cuisines that are normally served from individually themed food carts). As the menu contains roughly 15 unique items, all of which we love, this was one of the hardest decisions of the night.
As this was our first visit we opted to try the tonkotsu ramen and okonomiyaki- two of our favorites. The ramen was a massive bowl of noodles, bamboo shoots, pork, 5:10 eggs, and is packed full of that rich umami flavor the restaurant is trying to share in each and every menu item.
The okonomiyaki, on the other hand, is a beast unto itself. The literal translation of this dish is “whatever you want, fried” and it is a cabbage pancake that, in normal circumstances, can be filled with whatever meats, vegetables, or seafood you like and is topped with bacon, spicy mayo, and a tangy barbecue sauce.
Although Umami does not offer any fillings inside their okonomiyaki (which I secretly hope changes in the future), the dish itself was quite possibly one of the best iterations of okonomiyaki we've ever had as the tangy barbecue sauce and house-cured bacon worked together perfect harmony.
A Bit of a Warning – Service Can Be Slow
It is worth noting that izakaya bars are designed with drinking as the primary purpose. This means that food is brought out to you as it is prepared and there may be periods that you have to wait in between courses.
Although our meal progressed quite well with the lighter dishes being brought out first to the larger and heavier dishes being served at the end of the meal, the pacing may catch you off guard. We received our robata skewers (and were almost finished with them) before our cocktails arrived. Our sushi roll came just a moment later. We then had a decent gap between those and the arrival of the okonomiyaki (yay, more time to drink) and an even bigger gap before the tonkotsu ramen arrived.
This may be misconstrued for slow service, something frowned upon most of the time in the USA, but this is exactly what you'd come to expect at an izakaya bar in Japan.
So be prepared to sit back, have another beer, and go with the flow as the food at Umami is so delicious that it is simply worth the wait.
For more Japanese in Pittsburgh, check out Teppanyaki Kyoto or Oishii Bento! Or, for more reviews of Pittsburgh restaurants, click the previous link to be taken to our directory of every review on Discover the Burgh!
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