Restaurant Review: Umami in Lawrenceville
Umami sets the bar for izakaya openings in Pittsburgh. But its owners still have steps to take to keep raising the standard.
photos by laura petrilla
To get to Umami in Lawrenceville, round the corner from Butler Street onto 38th Street and look for the red lantern and the Japanese-lettered sign. Grab the iron, dragon-shaped handle, open the heavy wood door and ascend two flights of a steep, wallpapered staircase. Turn the corner into an L-shaped room bathed in crimson light. DJs spin sonic tunes at a decibel level that comfortably straddles vibe and conversation.
That crimson lighting is spellbinding, but it’s a shattered illusion when a server dropping off miso deviled eggs smells as though he crimped his cigarette between the pass and the table. At least those eggs, a smidgen too sweet but bolstered by seafaring depth from compressed nori, still are an enjoyable bar snack.
Three izakayas opened in Pittsburgh in 2016. Umami, which opened in April, is the best of the bunch. Nevertheless, Executive Chef/Co-Owner Roger Li and his team still could tune up a couple of notches if they want to become a destination establishment.
The concept is a partnership between Round Corner Cantina owner Derek Burnell and Li, who is best known in Pittsburgh as the chef of Tamari, the Latin-Asian restaurant that closed in 2015. Before that, Li worked in his native Philadelphia as a sushi chef at Morimoto.
Izakaya, loosely defined, are the Japanese equivalent to the British pub. They are a third space for after work or late at night, when most other restaurants have stopped serving food, catching up with friends and colleagues over drinks and shared plates. American diners accustomed to sushi bars and all-purpose “Japanese” restaurants will find an array of dishes beyond the familiar rainbow roll and teriyaki.
On one evening, an order of karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken) arrived just in time to distract us from the distraction of nü Pittsburghers snapping endless duck-face selfies in front of the colorful, neon “Meet Me @ Umami” sign. “I can’t believe this is real,” a friend said as the display continued.
Crisp, savory and served with gravy, the chicken is both an “I want to come here to eat this” bar snack and an even better “I spent too much time at the bar I want to grab something from the fridge to help me feel better” bite the next morning.
Chawanmushi, a savory egg custard enhanced by earthy mushroom dashi and bright scallions, is comfort food. “I want to eat this for breakfast. All the time,” a friend said on one visit.
Grilled whole red snapper, charred from the heat of a robata, is clean and meaty, with hints of sweetness from a soy glaze. It is a smart dish to order, as are the affordable chicken thigh and scallion, quail egg and bacon, beef tenderloin and other skewers cooked over the charcoal grill.
Other items are letdowns. Foremost is the sushi, which is a consistent disappointment. Li can do much better, and he’s proved it; last June he served a spectacular array of nigiri at a pop-up event at the Shadyside coffeehouse Adda.
The quality of fish is excellent, particularly with the daily specials. Its preparation, however, borders on unforgivable. Rice is underseasoned and, much worse, is cold, making for a chill-on-chill bite that destroys the beauty of the fish.
Perhaps if Li dropped the rice-based sushi program (the sashimi, on the whole, is quite good), other dishes, such as the saccharine okonomiyaki or the murky, muddled flavors of the nasu shigiyaki (pan-fried Japanese eggplant, ground chicken, saikyo miso sauce), would be more refined. Even crowd-pleasers such as pork gyoza could be better if there were more attention to detail.
A good izakaya is as much a bar as it is a restaurant, and here Umami largely is successful. A handful of cocktails veer a tad candy, but others are quite enjoyable. Fizzy Lifting Drink is mild, light and grainy, with an enticing aroma from aromatic bitters. Shiso High resembles a sweetened whiskey sour balanced by a touch of oakiness and a hint of an herbal backbone. Panda Panda Panda is served in a tiki mug with a twisty straw that encourages imbibers to enjoy more than one of this potent, acidic and tropical cocktail. Umami’s bar also boasts a solid sake collection and a strong list of Japanese whiskey and beer.
The bar staff is upbeat and helpful; it’s a lively spot to hang out for a couple rounds of drinks.
If you stick to the pub grub, particularly if you’re craving late-night bite in a town where it’s hard to find something good to eat after 10, Umami might become part of your regular rotation. But that’s not enough, especially for a chef with Li’s experience.
There’s a feeling of leaning back to chill instead of leaning forward to improve. Umami is almost where it needs to be, but it’s going to take focus on detail to take those the last few steps.
202 38th St., Lawrenceville; 412/224-2354, umamipgh.com
Executive Chef/Co-Owner | Umami
Why open an izakaya?
After Tamari — even during Tamari — I was thinking that I wasn’t in love with making Latin-fusion food (Tamari was a hybrid Latin-Asian fusion restaurant). Even though it was something I could do, it wasn’t my speciality. The thing I make the best, that I love the most is Japanese food. Izakaya food is small plates, it’s street food, it’s comfort food. It’s straightforward and fresh, and goes well with your drinks. We’re trying to promote a bar atmosphere with really good food. I wanted a small menu. Keep it simple. Don’t try to do everything.
It feels like today’s Pittsburgh needs restaurants like this that are more specific than a catch-all “Japanese” type of establishment.
Yes. I still don’t have a California roll on the menu because it doesn’t fit the style of this place. Would it sell if I had it on? Probably. But that’s not what this place is meant to be.
What were your influences when building the concept?
Going to other places to eat. Izakaya food is how I like to dine. When I go to New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other places I look for it. Even though my karaage might be different than other places, I want to find out what they’re doing differently than mine and if I can make it better. I also wanted to have a place where people felt they could come in for as short or as long as they wanted to. You can have a beer and a few snacks. You can come in, eat a handroll and leave. Even though it’s supposed to be a pub, a bar, you should still have good food.
How did you think about design?
We had a subcontractor that helped us with the technical stuff that we couldn’t do ourselves, but I was the general contractor. Derek (Burnell) and I did the design; he has a great vision for nightlife. Neon was something he was big on. People talk first about food and drink, but then they talk about atmosphere and vibe.
Have people taken to late-night dining?
We have a pretty good push of people coming in after 10 p.m. on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends. A lot of people who work in the service industry come here.