Umami, a Japanese loanword, translates as a ‘pleasant savoury taste’. Included with the four classic taste dimensions: sweet; salty; bitter and sour, it can be recognized largely in Japanese cuisine often found in the additive known as MSG. This flavour is associated with a salty, savoury taste which is why its inclusion in the basic list was in dispute. However, the distinction from the ‘salty’ category can be made due to the way that Umami can be created through combinations of savoury foods put together. Think Remi with his cheese and strawberry in Ratatouille.
Umami means adding the intense flavour that you need in order to enjoy your meal to the full extent. Parmesan on spaghetti Bolognese. The little bit of burnt on your roast potatoes. Mustard on ham. Fish and chips with tartar sauce. Soy sauce on sushi? Umami!
It’s also the name of a lovely underground noodle bar on Oxford Road. Having visited on five occasions without a single disappointment, I thought a review of my fifth taste was in order.
On descending the restaurant’s steps I first expected to be greeted with a neon-lit counter, hectic atmosphere and claustrophobic but versatile seating – a sort of cross between Archie’s Milkshakes and Yo!Sushi. This presumption was only due to a glance at the offer of a £5.95 lunch deal and the coloured sign modestly pointing to ‘noodle bar’. What in fact lives at the bottom of those stairs is a sophisticated and authentic Japanese restaurant that is a great meeting place for lunch or dinner, student or superior.
Shiny rectangular wooden tables stand at perfect elbow-resting height, with matching benches and similarly sized Japanese artwork adorning the right wall. Another wall gives home to the half-open kitchen with a tall bar for freshly made orders to wait. Those orders don’t wait long as staff are attentive and efficient, in fitting with the place’s clean and functional look. Despite the sleek design, the restaurant still holds just the right amount of character, being underground and spacious without feeling confined or empty.
The food itself is similarly simple without being boring. Mostly centred around noodles in various sizes with differing broths and flavourings, the menu also offers fried rice dishes and an appetizing selection of small plates or starters.
From the vast amount that I have tried, I would particularly recommend the crispy salt & pepper tofu – perfect for first time tofu-triers, or those who’ve had bad experiences with the spongy stuff tasting like well, sponge. The king prawn gyoza dumplings are equally satisfying and when dipped in the sweet sauce really create that UMAMI flavour.
The udon and ramen soups are honestly much of a muchness for me, which doesn’t mean to say they are not good. The combination of noodle and broth makes a refreshing lunch and a spicy one is perfect for a cold winter day. Offerings on the lunch menu are a careful selection of the best sellers that the chefs are readily prepared to make in a short time, it seems encouraged during this time as a means of practicality for the staff. This means that you’re not getting a pared down version of something from the full list, so it’s a win-win situation.
The speed of service here means I’ll normally go for lunch so I can spend more time doing nothing quickly get back to the library. However, on occasions where I’ve dined in the evening it has also been a lovely choice, always positively commented upon by the friends I have taken. Although one night we gave in to the temptation of Japanese beer Asahi, a regret after examining the receipt to find it was £3.60 a bottle. I suppose that’s just how these restaurants make their money, but as a student it’s unlikely that I’d opt to have a drink there again.
To conclude, I’d describe Umami as an up-market and less commercial Wagamamas that guarantees a fulfilling meal. It won’t blow your tastebuds, but it’ll pleasure them.
Japanese Sushi Noodle Bar Restaurant
147/153 Oxford Road