For now, Umai, Ken Lumpkin's new restaurant featuring French/Japanese cuisine, is perhaps better known as "the restaurant in the old On Teur spot on Madison."
Once inside Umai, however, visitors will find it hard to believe the building once housed the original Harry's. They'll immediately notice the sleek new décor, defined by an open cooking area enclosed by a handcrafted red-cedar and bamboo bar. Gone is the plastic-covered porch, thanks to one of Lumpkin's friends, local woodworker and conservationist Scott Banbury. In its place is a free-standing timber-frame shed -- constructed of wood recovered after Hurricane Elvis -- that provides plenty of extra seating. A brightly colored mural by local graffiti artists and delicate glass light fixtures provide the finishing touches to the interior.
"I thought I could slap paint on and go, but the building was in worse shape than I thought," Lumpkin says.
The attention to detail extends beyond Umai's furnishings. Lumpkin says he purposely printed his menu on a plain sheet of paper because he plans on changing it often depending on the freshest fish, fruits, and vegetables available.
"I take a French technique and insert Japanese ingredients or take a Japanese technique and insert French ingredients," Lumpkin explains. "Like with the spinach gyoza: I do a French-style mushroom duxelles but substitute sake for white wine and use soy sauce instead of cream."
In addition to the spinach gyoza, other menu items include lobster dumplings wrapped in cabbage, pan-seared salmon with mushrooms and black rice, and pistachio-encrusted grouper atop tourne potatoes and carrots with a demi-glace and butternut chutney. For Sunday brunch, Umai offers comfort food with a Japanese bent. The "Steak-n-Eggs" is made with grilled flank steak and is served with two eggs any style and crispy home fries. The fried-rice omelet comes with lemon-grass barbecue and poached artichokes. "Buddha's Breakfast" features miso soup, rice, fried tofu, and kimchee.
Umai's fare is unlike anything else in Memphis. Lumpkin, who started in the restaurant industry by waiting tables while studying journalism in college, began cooking seriously 11 years ago at Chez Philippe, where he worked under Jose Gutierrez. "I always thought Japanese food was artistic, but Chef Jose taught me the whole aspect of fine dining," Lumpkin says.
In addition to working in several other fine-dining establishments in Memphis -- including Aubergine, Buckley's, Cielo, Dō, Pacific Rim, and Blue Fin -- Lumpkin says he learned a lot of techniques from his Japanese mother and that many of his recipes are four generations old. Lumpkin's uncle's best friend, a master chef in Japan, has also been influential. "For a while I went to Japan twice a year. I stayed for two or three weeks at a time and just worked for free."
After heading up several of the city's best known sushi bars, diners may be surprised to learn that Lumpkin did not include any sushi on the Umai menu. "Once you open a sushi bar, everyone comes in and wants a California roll," Lumpkin jokes. "Sushi in Memphis is not traditional sushi. Good sushi changes with the seasons, and a good sushi chef develops his own marinade for the rice." Lumpkin does plan to put in a small sushi bar in the near future, but it won't feature the typical American-style sushi.
Lumpkin is also interested in providing a special place for vegetarians and vegans. "There isn't anything on the menu that is specifically vegetarian or vegan," Lumpkin notes, "but if someone comes in with a special request, I have vegetable stock, soy milk, vegan butter -- everything I need. I really enjoy cooking for vegetarians."
After starting a restaurant with a partner in Hot Springs and later working 15-hour days for someone else, Lumpkin is happy to be on his own. "I still work 12-hour days, but it's my place. It's all me," he says.
Once Umai is established, Lumpkin says he would like to open another restaurant -- a late-night noodle shop specializing in noodles, dumplings, and egg rolls. For now, Lumpkin is looking forward to packing Umai's 52 seats. "I want to stay small," he says, but after a pause adds, "unless the owner decides to move the Kwik Chek [next door] for some reason."
Umai (2015 Madison, 405-4241) is open Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.