Kids, Kitsch, Kool: Ümami Café

Great food, great vibe, and (don’t tell anyone) it’s family friendly, too.

In some culinary circles, the phrase “budget- and child-friendly” is a slur, connoting sticky tables, junk food, and mobs of sugar-crazed brats. Yet seven-year-old Ümami Café, both inexpensive and family-friendly, manages a delicate balance. It offers economical, well-spiced food—that supports local growers—in a child-welcoming environment. Is that so wrong?

Like Tarry Lodge, Craig Purdy and Jonathan Pratt’s Ümami Café is the new style of family restaurant, offering a seductive welcome to adults while, incidentally, accommodating children. When last we visited Ümami, this relaxed joint was packed with couples and families, young and old. Despite hints of gustatory intellectualism (ümami is the elusive “fifth taste,” characterized by the meaty flavor of glutamic acid in mushrooms, meats, soy sauce, and MSG), this Croton-on-Hudson standby has a humorous, even goofy, vibe. It’s an idiosyncratic space, with bright hues, a profusion of kitsch, and a homey enclosed porch (and an open deck in summer). There’s a reverent whiff of ’70s rec room about the place, while the childrens’ menu is presented in an old-school ViewMaster toy. Call me a nostalgia monkey, but I find this charming—though I’m still holding out for strong cocktails served with Rockem Sockem Robots. (It won’t happen at Ümami, sadly, because this joint’s licensed for beer and wine only.)

Kitsch aside, welcomes of hot-from-the-fryer potato chips are pretty much heaven. Thick-sliced, crisp, and mouthwateringly salty, these freebies disappeared even before we landed cheap ($5) pints of locally brewed Captain Lawrence Pale Ale and Liquid Gold. Sipping beer and savoring the remnants of salt on our palates, we vowed to return when Ümami’s outdoor deck is open. We planned to sample selections from the short, well-priced wine list—or Ümami’s popular sangria ($7 pint/$20 pitcher)—while cooling our heels in summer breezes. (FYI: Ümami’s lantern-strung outdoor deck is now open.)

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Ümami’s menu is ambitiously globe-trotting, with appetizer odes to the Pacific Rim sharing space with Peking duck quesadillas ($8.50), portabella-mozzarella panini ($8.50), seared ahi tuna mini won ton “tacos” ($8.50), and a reverent homage to samosas ($7). Chefs Purdy and Pratt—whose family names are clearly D.A.R. material—have the good sense to avoid claims of authenticity. Instead, their versions of world dishes are unapologetically personal, and even cheerfully dabbling. A cool bowl of sesame noodles ($6.50) arrived tossed in a sweet peanut tahini sauce with the mild, palate-clearing crunch of julienned cucumber. Meanwhile, Peking duck quesadillas ($8.50) are paired with tangy crème fraîche, while Cubano sandwiches are transmogrified into spring rolls ($8). Winking foodie jokes abound on this menu, like “sushi joint salad” ($5)—a version of the refreshing, complimentary carroty-sauced greens found on mid- to lower-priced sushi restaurants.

Though culturally diverse, this kitchen’s most confident footing is in the genre of American comfort food, like the insanely delicious appetizer of truffled mac and cheese ($6), where ümami-dense black truffle butter and white truffle oil punctuate a rich, slippery sauce of fragrant Gruyère and fontina. Equally stunning is a hunter’s meatloaf main ($14), whose ground buffalo and venison meats mimic beef, while managing to be more intensely beefy. On our last visit, the meatloaf rounds arrived gilded with creamy shiitake gravy, whose thick paleness alluded to a blue-plate special ancestor, though its subtle flavor spoke of mushroomy complexity. Partnered with purposely chunky mashed potatoes and soft, sautéed heads of bok choy, the dish yielded a doggie bag to divorce for.

While Evil Jungle Prince—Ümami’s ode to Thai curry—won’t fool habitués of Sripraphai (it’s too thick and sweet, its veggies too soft, its heat too tame), the dish is nonetheless tasty and satisfying. This stew is perfectly enjoyable with its copious slices of juicy, tender chicken and a mound of glutinous short-grain rice.

And after a dizzying canter around the globe, desserts at Ümami are soothingly familiar. In cooler months, look for comfort in locally famous warm sticky date cake ($6), while in warmer months, strawberry shortcake ($6) and Croton-on-Hudson-made Blue Pig ice cream ($7.50) beckon. Throughout the menu, you’ll find evidence of Purdy and Pratt’s ethos of localism: Captain Lawrence beer, Blue Pig ice cream, and loads of produce from local farms, including from the partners’ own spread in Otsego County. (The pair also owns Yorktown’s Peter Pratt’s Inn.)

Best of all, Ümami is one of the few “family-friendly” restaurants where parents can unashamedly take their kids. Ümami provides tasty, nutritious, locally raised food, and even is furnished with a green solar-thermal hot water system. No screaming brats, no sticky tables, and no junk food. Family-friendly—is that so wrong?

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Ümami Café

♦ ♦ ♦

325 S Riverside Ave, Croton-on-Hudson
(914) 271-5555

Hours: Mon to Thurs 5 pm–10 pm, Fri and Sat 5 pm–10:30 pm, Sun 1 pm–10 pm; Appetizers: $5-$8.50; entrées: $12-$19; desserts: $6

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦—Outstanding ♦ ♦ ♦ —Very Good
♦ ♦ —Good ♦ —Fair

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