Umai Umai

Chef/owner Alex McCoy in his natural element, at the sushi bar of his restaurant Umai Umai.
Chef/owner Alex McCoy in his natural element, at the sushi bar of his restaurant Umai Umai.

Sushi man Alex McCoy composes raw delights and unique rolls, colorful and exotic, at his Fairmount bistro.

Posted: June 21, 2009

The "Umai tree," as the devout fans of chef Alex McCoy now call themselves, has spread its roots in a quiet but effective way that most restaurateurs could only hope for. With little fanfare in the press, and little paid advertisement, McCoy has built a loyal clientele for his cozy Fairmount sushi bistro over the last three years purely by word of mouth, rolling his inventive maki below the radar and reeling in regulars with an unconventional eye and fish that is equally distinctive.

"This is called the 'Alex-make-me-something-nice-platter,' " said the distinguished gent beside me at the sushi counter. He took the long plate from McCoy behind the bar with a wink and reveled in the array of perfectly sliced and exotic raw fish. It was as gorgeous as any I'd seen around here of late: delicate needlefish lined with a beam of silver skin; pristine goldeneye kinmedai snapper blushing translucent pink around the edges; orange clouds of creamy uni; deep purple tuna; and salmon whose coral hue was so richly striped it looked like sculpted marble.

I'd been to Umai Umai years ago when it first opened, and a disappointing experience with the cooked food and service dampened my enthusiasm. With so many other Japanese restaurants opening at that same moment, it fell through the cracks, off my radar, and never quite sparked my interest for a full review, until recently. That's when two members of the Umai tree ambushed my e-mail with the kind of effusive praise I'm usually wary of. But there was also a set of eye-catching pictures I couldn't ignore, with a checkerboard of tuna in brightly colored sauce, shot glasses crowned with oyster shells and roe, and a glass plate adorned with fanciful compositions of fish: This was sushi porn at its best.

Had I really missed something here?

After a couple of revisits the answer is yes - and no.

No because the cooked food is just as uninspired as ever, the details of which I'll turn to shortly. But the 38-seat Umai Umai is really all about the magic that McCoy methodically spins behind his sushi bar. His creations aren't all entirely successful. But he displays such individuality in a town replete with maki-copycats that the most important answer, if you're seeking a distinctive sushi experience, is a resounding yes.

One look at the Traffic Light roll - essentially a spider roll with fried softshell crab but topped with thick mounds of red-, yellow- and green-colored roe - says it all. "Stop" and admire its beauty. "Slow" down and savor the intricate pop of roe, crunchy crab, and the creaminess of avocado and spicy mayo. "Go" and eat your fill of the spicy green, sweet red, and citrusy yellow rounds before your wise companions beat you to it.

Thankfully, McCoy has so many other exciting rolls, there should be plenty for everyone. There's the Spirited Away, a triangular roll dabbed with chile-soy that wraps tuna (one side seared, the other raw) around chewy shiitake and watercress. There's the flash-fried Pingu, which layers portions of spicy-creamy crab salad on top and inside the crunchy roll. There's the surf-and-turf Spartan, a bulgoki roll of sesame-seared beef with shrimp tempura. The Ping Pong is McCoy's elaborate twist on a spicy tuna roll, with the fish stuffed in a tofu pocket that gets fried, then rolled again.

And then there is Godzilla, so named for the strawberry slices that line its length like the spikes of a dinosaur's back. I'm not a fan of this Godzilla. With its avocado, eel, and shrimp tempura topped with berries and crushed macadamia nuts, it is basically a sundae in a sushi disguise. (Somewhere, Godzilla is screaming.) It is far too fruity to be fierce. And it also points to McCoy's tendency to get carried away with his creations.

McCoy, who has cooked from Morimoto to Teikoku, makes rolls that are always aesthetically beautiful. But there is often one (or three) too many ingredients. The oyster shooter, a shot glass of kumamotos and sea urchin in citrus soy with an oyster shell cradling raw quail egg and salmon roe perched on top, is a clever way for McCoy to serve an adventurous melange of ingredients that individually don't sell well. But for those who actually covet those delicacies, like me, the subtleties of each are completely lost to the citrus marinade.

A heavy hand with the citrus sauce similarly dulled the distinctive flavors of the scallop carpaccio and the yellowtail tiradito. Dialed back just a notch in marinade volume, these would have been spectacular. McCoy's ingredients are top-notch, and when he presents them in simple presentations like sashimi, an experienced raw-fish lover can savor some unusual delights, like the toothsome snap of needlefish, or the fishy fresh tang of willow leaf smelt, or something even more exotic, like the tiny ice fish that look like translucent threads with eyes, or miniature "fairy squids" (hotaru ika), or a "shako" mantis shrimp. Honestly, I've never loved the gray chalkiness of that particular shrimp, but the fact that McCoy even carries such a rarity (and others) is alone reason to visit.

I found a number of others. The steamed monkfish liver, mounded over an Asian beurre blanc sweetened with miso, was a rich and vaguely marine-tasting pate turned exotic with kumquats and shiso mint. The tuna bruschetta is a clever take on carpaccio, a crisp rice cracker topped with sashimi, tangy piquillo pepper salsa, and dill aioli, a surprising herb for tuna that worked marvelously. A similar combination worked just as well in a completely different form, a checkerboard of tuna (dabbed with dill aioli) alternated with squares of "white tuna" (escolar) ringed by a fire-red froth of piquillo-miso sauce. Meanwhile, a hot glass of minced eel topped with creamy potato mayonnaise and crunchy potato laces was so beguiling, at once earthy, sweet and sea-like, that McCoy is excused for mislabeling the eel (it's salt-water anago, not conger).

Umai Umai's service has improved since my first visit years ago, with pleasant waitresses who are well-versed on the menu, and so attuned to the "clickety" of fallen chopsticks that a new pair appeared on our table out of nowhere (twice!) within seconds. On busy nights, though, there can be long delays for cooked food from the kitchen. And it was rarely worth the wait. The chicken teriyaki was overcooked. The scallops were stifled by an over-rich cream sauce. The seafood "paella" was more of a gloppy coconut curry risotto. And the tuna burger, overwrought for such a tiny slider, was shown up by the side of deep-fried feta mac-and-cheese.

Of course, Umai Umai is just a tiny corner nook, and McCoy runs the entire kitchen with just one helper. But if this ambitious chef tends to some of his weaknesses, this little "Umai tree" has the promise to really grow.


Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Novità in Graduate Hospital. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com. 

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