Happy New Menu

| January 14, 2010
The Boston butt pork at Umai is braised with Japanese spices.
- Justin Fox Burks
The Boston butt pork at Umai is braised with Japanese spices.
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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 cooked 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; kimchee seafood salad ($8), house salad ($5), and Red Dragon roll ($9); Sumo wrestler hot pot ($15), Boston butt braised with Japanese spices and served with risotto ($11), and fish Grenobloise ($9); and — because we couldn't stop ourselves — green tea and vanilla-bean crème brûlée ($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: tuna, salmon, yellow tail, squid, and octopus, topped with crispy strips of salmon skin.

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 server, Robyn Ladd.

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.

Umai, 2015 Madison,

myspace.com/umairestaurant (405-4241)

Café Olé, the popular Mexican restaurant in Cooper-Young, reopened New Year's day after a break for renovations. But don't expect big changes in the decor, except for the charming gold lizard made out of the old bar tiles.

"We put in a new ceramic bar, and he's all that's left of the old one," said manager Susan Davis. "Mostly, we did a lot of painting."

Café Olé also tweaked its menu with lunch specials: a soup of the day, a soup and salad combo for $4.75, and another half-dozen choices (cheese quesadillas, nachos, burritos, fish tacos, tamale pies, chicken tenders, and "pick two" combos) priced at $5.99. "We've included things that are quick to put together so people can get in and out," said Denise Johnson, the restaurant's other manager.

Lunch specials include a beverage and rice or fries and are available Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you're feeling extra hungry, be on the lookout for Café Olé's upcoming dinner specials or stop by on Tuesdays when all appetizers (except bacon-wrapped shrimp) are available for half-price.

Ken Lumpkin
Ken Lumpkin

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