The Fifth Dimension
Building a menu around an elusive fifth taste isn’t easy, but Umami Chef Jon Pratt is giving it a whirl.
Sweet, sour, salty and bitter were long ago identified as the four basic tastes, but “umami” claims to be the fifth. What does “umami” taste like? Think MSG.
Umami, roughly translated from Japanese, means “deliciousness,” and is described as having an “earthy” quality. We refer to it less poetically as glutamate, an amino acid isolated by a Japanese scientist curious about the distinctive taste of seaweed broth.
A fifth basic taste, really? Indeed: Recently it was discovered that the tongue has specific taste receptors that respond exclusively to glutamate.
This background is necessary to understand what the new restaurant Umami is all about. Executive chef and co-owner Jon Pratt (the son of Peter Pratt of Peter Pratt’s Inn in Yorktown) has borrowed liberally from the culinary traditions of the world and designed a fusion-style menu around foods rich in glutamate. Fortunately, this does not mean that every dish has seaweed. Umami is also one of the flavor components of ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and shiitake mushrooms.
The menu makes for an exciting read—wild boar spring rolls, Peking duck quesadilla, and “evil jungle prince” (Thai-style chicken curry). The prices are even more of a thrill: $6 appetizers, $14 entrÃ©es, and most wines around $25.
Crowds have been rolling in since Umami opened last spring. The restaurant takes no reservations, and even on a Tuesday it was busy. (A new outdoor dining pavilion was recently added to accommodate the crowds.) There is no bar to wait in, just a small entryway. Blond wood tables are wiped down cafÃ© style, and there are charming little touches, like the row of clocks telling the time in various spots around the world, including “here” and in Goa, India. But the restaurant leaves a lot to be desired in the way of creature comforts. Seated on a bench that lines the walls, I had nothing to lean on except windows and hard angles. Maybe tossing a few pillows around would help.
A bowl of handmade potato chips appeared shortly after we were seated, and they were terrific—thick, salty, and cooked to a golden brown. The wine list covers the globe, with a selection of eight whites and six reds priced between $15 and $40; each is available by the glass.
For starters we tried the coconut lime soup and found the dish the standout of the evening—rare status for a soup: creamy coconut milk with powerful lime flavors and just the right touch of red pepper and cilantro. One fun dish is truffled mac and cheese, a ramekin of elbow macaroni in a cream sauce of GruyÃ¨re and fontina cheeses, enhanced by the very umami flavors of black truffle butter and white truffle oil. It is as compelling for adults as Kraft Mac & Cheese is for kids.
The Peking duck quesadilla was not as good, painted with crÃ¨me fraÃ®che and a thick, sticky hoisin sauce that had set. The cross-cultural mini won ton tacos stuffed with seared ahi tuna, guacamole and wasabi-laced sour cream could have used more seasonings. But the only genuine failure was the house salad, with its inexcusably limp greens.
The service was as lame as the greens. The servers were there when you didn’t need them, gone when you did. We waited more than 45 minutes for our entrÃ©es, and later had to chase down the check.
EntrÃ©es include quite good soy-Sriracha -glazed grilled shrimp that ringed an in- verted bowl of fragrant, beautifully cooked jasmine rice. A fragrant, soupy Thai chicken curry with coconut milk and a little bit of heat was served with excellent small-grained Japanese brown rice. Steamed tilapia (the fish of the day) was fresh, but took on the flavors of the accompanying fermented black beans and an overly abundant sauce of sesame oil, soy and ginger. Waiting for our food, I noticed that many had ordered the most American item on the menu: grilled hangar steak with Joyce’s Beach House Sauce (presumably some glutamates are lurking in there) and a pile of french fries. Try that.
The dessert list is so short at Umami, there is no need for a menu. Flan con queso is an example of a creative combination unfortunately run amok: flan with an unpleasantly heavy texture and cheesecake without depth. Slices of caramelized banana and whipped cream slipped into a flavorless puff pastry was another dessert not worth the calories. But the crowds that keep coming don’t seem to mind. They’ve discovered umami.
325 South Riverside Avenue, Croton-on-Hudson
Lunch, Mon. to Fri. 12-2 pm
Dinner, Mon. to Thurs. and Sun., 5:30-10 pm, Fri. and Sat., 5:30-11 pm