After the holidays, tired of the cooking from my own kitchen, I treated my family to the cooking from Ken Lumpkin’s Midtown restaurant, Umai.
I’d heard that Lumpkin, who opened his Japanese and French cuisine restaurant three years ago, had rolled out smaller plates and lower prices, which sounded good to me after the excesses of Christmas.
“Now you can spend $15 and get two or three plates, but the quality of the food is still the same,” Lumpkin said, explaining how his new menu reflects more affordable prices and lessons learned from his mother, Sumiko.
“When I was growing up in Memphis, there weren’t many Asian markets, so we used Japanese techniques with whatever ingredients we could get. Instead of daikon, we used turnip greens; instead of Japanese spinach, we used American spinach. What mattered most was that our ingredients were as fresh as possible, and that’s my main focus at Umai.”
Lumpkin’s mother, who learned to cook in Japan and continued cooking for local restaurants in Memphis, also emphasized the responsibility chefs have to their customers. “My mom always said to make sure you were proud to serve your food because customers worked hard for their money, and they were spending it at your restaurant,” Lumpkin said. “Integrity matters to me.”
So how does Lumpkin’s new menu translate into dinner? Here’s the bottom line: beautifully plated dishes that are flavorful and satisfying at half the former price.
My family still managed to spend about $75, but that’s not bad for three people who ordered wine all around; kimchee seafood salad ($8), house salad ($5), and Red Dragon roll ($9); Sumo wrestler hot pot ($15), Boston butt braised with Japanese spices and sushi rice risotto ($11), and fish Grenobloise ($9); and - because we couldn’t stop ourselves - green tea and vanilla bean crème brule ($7).
The kimchee salad served on a bed of baby arugula was particularly good, combining kimchee, a little mayonnaise, salt, pepper, chives, and fresh seafood. “When you were in I think I used tuna, salmon, yellow tail, squid, and octopus, topped with crispy strips of salmon skin,” Lumpkin said.
Equally delicious was Umai’s hot pot called Chanko Nabe, a rich Japanese stew traditionally eaten by Sumo wrestlers to gain weight. (Be forewarned!) Lumpkin’s version is a curry broth with udon, pork, smoked chicken, seafood, and seasonal veggies. “It’s our kitchen-sink style noodle bowl,” he said. “We make the stock out of chicken bones, pork bones, and fish bones and use whatever fresh seafood is available.”
We didn’t try the seafood risotto, although many customers do. “It’s one of our most popular dishes,” said our waitress, Robyn.
Umai serves dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and from 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, the restaurant serves brunch from noon to 4 p.m. and dinner from noon until 9 p.m.