Fusion cuisine is a tricky concept. It's like a clever bait-and-switch, but more so than a simple substitution of one ingredient or side dish for another. Emergent fusion flavors should give a nod to both of their parents, entirely complementary, yet entirely unique. It's an adventure to discover one flavor hiding where another usually lives.
At Brookline's Umami, the focus is on savory Asian-inspired tastes that meld with traditional French bistro fare. In 2010, after leaving Thai restaurant Khao Sarn, Japanese Chef Yoshi Hakamoto opened Umami with his wife, Nomun.
The menu is built around familiar dishes: Steak au poivre, lamb shank with mashed potatoes. There's the pork loin chops and Frenched lamb that we expect, but here, those pork chops are marinated in an exotic blend of Southeast Asian spices, and the lamb is flavored with a five-pepper blend, and served with coconut rice and pineapple salsa.
Tender steak tips are marinated in lemongrass and ginger, and cooked with a gentle touch. They're accompanied by a mound of coconut rice that's fluffy yet rich, and several quarters of charred tomato that seem oddly out of place both on the plate and in the flavor scheme.
Four-cheese risotto, made with Japanese short-grain rice, is unbelievably creamy and rich with cheese. It's dotted with mushrooms for a burst of the savory, as well as zucchini and edamame for texture.
Appetizers demonstrate the same care and play at fusion. Lamb meatballs, tasting agreeably of peppercorns, rest on a crimson veneer of mild tomato sauce, with grilled bread alongside. Black Tiger shrimp are prepared stir-fry style with peppers and onions, but in a sauce that nimbly combines sake and soy sauce with lemon thyme and bay leaf, herbs used in French cuisine.
Umami describes itself as "an Asian-inspired bistro with a creative twist,"and that twist can be found in the inspired drink menu managed by beverage director Noon Inthasuwan. Unusual flavors, like rose and marigold, spring from nature to populate the drinks. Housemade shiitake bitters, which take between six and eight weeks to concoct, make an appearance in the Brookline, a solid take on a Manhattan. The Beaconsfield is delicate cucumber with a darker undertone of bitters, with notes of marigold and citrus dancing on top. Also on offer is wine, sake, and a beer list that boldly includes Dogfish Head Midas Touch.
The two-dessert menu is another daring choice, featuring a custard made from the pungent durian fruit popular in Southeast Asia. For those not quite prepared for such an undertaking, there's also mochi ice cream.
The food shines in this simple setting of earthy green walls and bare wood floors, but there's little time to linger--dishes come out of the kitchen lickety-split. The crowd is quiet, low-key, and out by ten o'clock. It's an uncomplicated way to enjoy fusion dishes that you won't find anywhere else in Brookline.
Umami is open Tuesday through Sunday, 5:00pm-10:00pm. 1704 Beacon Street, Brookline. MBTA: Green Line (C) to Tappan Street.