Taste of Tokyo at Umami

    Volim PhotoMadai and salmon toro, served as nigiri at Umami's in Ashland.

    Diners may know Taroko as the sushi place that boasts discounts on Maki Mondays and daily happy hours, and they may have been taken aback by an abrupt change to their local landscape. It’s not Taroko anymore. It’s Umami.

    Located at 62 E. Main St., Ashland, Umami came to be a couple of months ago when one of the owners decided to part ways with Taroko Ashland (there are still other Taroko locations in Grants Pass and Jacksonville).

    “Will the food be different?” my wife and I wondered, as we stepped into the redefined restaurant. The dimly lit, modern décor is currently the same, but what about our favorite maki? What about the prices?

    Heading straight for the sushi pages of the revised menu, we saw some of our prized rolls still on the menu, like the Jessica Alba-core and the Crunchy Tiger Hidden Dragon. We also noticed many of the sushi prices had increased by about one dollar, with old specialty rolls up from about $13 and $14 to $14 and $15. There also are a ton of new rolls on the menu with roughly the same price tag, reaching up to $17. This includes some maki that might not have fit on Taroko’s old menu.

    The new menu is intended to highlight the flavor of the fish itself, in the spirit of traditional Japanese sushi, according to new co-owner and executive chef Boon Theng Wai. After owning Asian restaurants on the East Coast, Boon moved his wife and 3-year-old daughter to Ashland just to open Umami with Christy Chiang, of the old Taroko guard, and new partner Joe Tan.

    “We changed up all of our sushi and everything a little bit. We’re trying to do more authentic Japanese food,” Boon says. “Some of the (special rolls) we make as light as possible, to be authentic to the fish, instead of putting a bunch of sauce on it.”

    The same is true of the sashimi and nigiri, which have expanded from typical ahi and yellowfin tuna you see on most sushi menus (though those still have their place at Umami).

    “We have more authentic Japanese fish, too. We have a bunch of different, specialty ordered fish that are flown in from Japan very fresh,” Boon says.

    The daily specials fluctuate, depending on what’s available from Umami’s Japanese supplier. When we visited, the specials were aji (Japanese horse mackerel) and madai (red sea bream). Madai is served in Japan for its delicate flavor and to promote prosperity, which is why it is served during Japanese weddings and at New Year’s celebrations. Outside of Japan, you’ll find red sea bream served commonly in Korea, Taiwan and Spain, where it is charcoal- or woodfire-grilled as “besugo.”

    We weren’t sure what to expect from a fish we’d never tried before, but were pleasantly surprised by the madai’s very clean, light and fresh flavor. Along with two madai nigiri, Boon brought us two salmon toro nigiri. Made from the fatty belly of the fish, salmon toro is lightly seared on top. Just as light as the madai, the buttery salmon had a delightful hint of smoke from being quickly seared on the grill. Together, the pair of fish did seem to be authentic, delicate and fresh.

    While the appetizer section of the menu maintains some of the old favorites — like the J Pop, tempura-fried, stuffed jalapeños — there are new additions, such as the Shrimp Shumai. Within doughy shumai wrappers, there is a light, gingery mix of shrimp and pork, all of which is tied together with a punchy citrus soy sauce for dipping.

    Furthering the authentic nature of the new menu, Umami has removed some of the Pan-Pacific items and replaced them with Japanese dishes. The Vietnamese pho has been supplanted with a series of ramen options that Boon says match the experience in Japan. The tonkotsu ramen is made with pork bones that have been cooked down overnight. This made for an earthy, full-bodied broth swimming with tender noodles and briny, moist pork.

    Although it was refreshing to be immersed in all of Umami’s authenticity, Danielle and I also fell back on comforting, Americanized maki specials. The chefs are happy to supply old, off-menu favorites, such as the lemony Golden Dragon Roll, for an additional dollar charge. Howeever, we wanted to try some of the new rolls our server believes are becoming popular: the Crazy Tuna and Lobster Mango.

    The Crazy Tuna is a reinvention of the traditional spicy tuna roll, taking the old mainstay, adding avocado, topping it with a piece seared tuna, and sprinkling on tempura flakes, spicy mayo and scallions. The seared tuna upgrades the spicy tuna roll by adding a welcome smoky flavor.

    The Lobster Mango roll wraps tempura lobster and mango in soy paper before covering it in salmon, red tobiko, eel sauce and sweet mayo. Despite its beautiful pink appearance, the Lobster Mango didn’t seem to reflect the delicate flavors that made up the new items on the menu, in that it felt weighty, carrying a single note of sweet mayo and tempura. Then again, a heavy reliance on sauces could likely be true of a lot of rolls that act as sushi ambassadors for American diners at Japanese restaurants in the U.S.

    This may be the reason Boon wants to bring more authentic Japanese dishes to the menu, in an effort to introduce more nuance to the sushi-going experience. According to Boon, the subtler flavors Umami now offers with fish flown in from Japan and savory ramen is more akin to how Japanese food is done in his home of New York.

    It might be great to have some Big Apple in little Ashland, given the fact that New York is known for having some of the best restaurants in the world. But what about Maki Mondays and happy hour?

    “We actually have Maki Mondays and Happy Hours,” Boon says. “We’ve even added a Locals Appreciation Day on Tuesdays. Locals get 10 percent off of almost everything.”

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