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Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar

UmamiIn a word: Not dorm food.

The specs: #0692  
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Barbara ate the apple walnut frisee salad and some dumplings with a mango mojito.
Darby ate the pork and chive dumplings.
Dave ate the miso ramen with a mango mojito.
JM ate the tonkotsu [sic] ramen.
Joshua ate the chicken and chive dumplings.
Nichole ate the shoyu ramen with a New Glarus Moon Man.
Robert ate some dumplings with a mango mojito.
We split two orders of pork buns, a tuna poke, and three desserts (the green tea creme brulee, ice cream sandwich, and mango sorbet).
The bill was about $20/person, plus tip (thank you, Robert & Barbara!).
JM and Nichole gave Umami an A- (see our grading rubric).

Umami was a riot. It's very hip inside (the word "fixie" may have been uttered), and the bar is loud, though to be fair we haven't experienced the dining room or the new patio. No room for pensive noodling here, though the specials were written on a chalkboard in haiku.

We were there to help Darby get ready for the Madison Marathon. The seven of us ordered quite a feast - six beverages, five appetizers, four orders of dumplings, three bowls of ramen, and 3 desserts (so far, turtle doves remain off the menu). And then to our surprise and delighted gratitude, our money was no good; our companions treated us.

And hence, this is the most interesting cross-industry sponsored post we've ever done (and probably the only one we will given that we're up to U), because we'd like to momentarily direct your attention to Barbara's expertise in eldercare. Her book Stuck in the Middle (WorldCat, Amazon), cowritten with Darby, has been invaluable to members of our family and we highly recommend her resources to anyone caring for elderly parents, whether in the sandwich generation or not.

Plan Ahead by Shari Elf

Image: Plan Ahead by Shari Elf. Used with permission.

See how we can seamlessly segue back to food? Smoove as a mango mojito.

The mango added depth and a velvety texture to the cocktails, but they were so sweet that if extra sugar had been added, it needn't have been. A little more lime and mint for balance would have been nice.

PokeApple walnut salad

Pork bunsThe pork buns were as delicious as we'd heard. Very fatty pork belly with lightly sweet pickled cucumbers and sticky hoisin in a steamed wrapper hit the spot. As did the tuna poke, comprised of a little pile of diced raw ahi, a slaw of apples and cucumbers, and seaweed salad rising from a sea of sweet soy like Aphrodite on a curvy pork rind. A salad (which would be billed in contemporary R&B-ese as: Apple Walnut featuring Carat Cranberry, Chedda, and Pomegranate Mynt) was a nod to some Wisconsin ingredients and a refreshing break from sesame oil, which was used liberally in most dishes we tried.

Shoyu ramenRamenTonkotsu ramenDumplings

The dumplings are worthy of their equal billing in the restaurant's name. These are small, tidily made, and filled with chives and meaty goodness. The chicken were more favored than the pork.

The miso and tonkotsu [sic] ramen are regular dishes, while the more subtle shoyu version was a popular special. All had a rather small quantity (maybe one to two ounces) of thinly sliced meat, thin, long, filling noodles, and bright halved hardboiled New Century eggs. The broth of each varied subtly. Of course the miso ramen had the richest flavor from the miso itself, while the shoyu was actually less salty than the other two. JM even liked the tonkotsu ramen, especially since the kitchen held the nori as he'd requested. Ours was just a small sheet floating, so it wouldn't have been a problem to remove it anyway, but still.

Green tea creme bruleeIce cream cookie sandwichMango sorbet

Dessert. The top of the green tea creme brulee was not quite caramelized enough, but underneath it was smooth as could be and garnished with blueberries and mint leaves. Mint also decorated an excellent mango sorbet. Least favored was an ice cream sandwich, where the vanilla ice cream was fine but the chocolate cookies were too hard, and the decorative fudge stripe had an undertone of sesame oil that took some getting used to.

Umami is not exactly a classic ramen bar, but what would that look like in Madison, anyway? It was tasty, at an appropriate price point, and unique, best enjoyed with friends along with an open mind and mouth.


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Oh, I had forgotten about this place! We'd been meaning to check it out.

There's a drink here called the Tokyo Snow Pear and I think it just might be my favorite drink in Madison. It has elderflower liqueur in it. Elderflower!!! Also, the food is delicious.

Tonkotsu is NOT a misspelling. Tonkotsu is a pork based stock (Tonkotsu literally translates to pork bone). It is a regional specialty of places like Fukuoka. Tonkatsu is a breaded and fried pork cutlet.

I do like Umami, although I have to admit that my ramen choices are limited in Madison as N=1. Normally tonkotsu broth is made with a ton of garlic (at least the Fukuoka variety, which is my favorite), which the Umami broth isn't. I'm not sure if this is a conscious taste choice, because so many American's seem to be averse to garlic, or an aesthetic choice as more traditionally prepared tonkotsu broth tends to smell a little like wet dog, which in turn permeates the whole restaurant. One of my favorite ramen places in Tokyo smells like a kennel when you walk in the door, but the food is mind blowing. In any event, while good, Umami's tonkotsu only tastes right after I've added a garlic bomb to the broth. Given the cost, I always feel a little cheated because I have to pay an extra dollar (on top of the tonkotsu being more expensive to begin with)to make it taste the way it's supposed to. Yet I keep going back because Umami's the only game in town. Their pork and chive dumplings are great, particularly with the more traditional soy vinagrette sauce. The pork buns are a blantant knock off of Graze and are oversauced to boot, burying the flavor of the pork belly.

Overall though Umami is a welcome addition to the city. I only wish Umami would adopt the approach most Korean Restaurants take which is: "This is how it's supposed to taste. If you don't like it, too bad." Good, traditional Japanese food doesn't need Americanization to stand on it's own.

> a classic ramen bar, but what would that look like in Madison, anyway?

That would be the late, lamented "Noodle House Kitakuni" on W Johnson street. Nothing there but tables, stools, and a tiny japanese lady making giant bowls of ramen. It was usually packed but it for some reason still didn't last.

There's now a condo tower where it used to be. That may have had something to do with it.

@SushiBadger To be fair, the pork buns at Graze aren't an original concept either. Both owe a debt to superstar chef David Chang in New York. And for my part, I'll take Umami's over Graze's 9 times out of 10.

My wife and I did a sort of Japanese Tapas deal when we went here and it proved to be a good choice. The pork buns are great. That may be because I never had this type of pork bun before, but we both loved them. They reminded me of how the skin of Peking duck is served in a good Chinese restaurant. The spring rolls were good, maybe not on par with Lao Laan-Xang, but good and we really enjoyed the chicken dumplings. What we really liked were the prices. just over $30 with two cocktails. Can't beat that.

I love Umami. The vegetarian options are some of the best in town... Yum.

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