Having accepted an invitation to review Umami restaurant, events (at my end) conspired against me and it was some weeks before I could reschedule a visit. By that time, my internal monologue had done a Chinese Whispers number on the cuisine of the restaurant from Asian to Indian, so I was quite surprised to discover on arrival that it offers dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Oh and I went to the wrong tube station too, convinced it was closest to South Kensington but discovering on arrival that it’s right around the corner from Gloucester Road.
And if I ever took in that the restaurant was in a hotel, I’d forgotten that as well, though I quickly worked it out when I arrived. The restaurant is to the right of the entrance, and the reception and lobby to the left and both are open to each other.
The decor is modern East Asian, nothing unusual, quite attractive. My booking is for lunch so lots of light spills in from large windows in the traditional Cromwell Road facade. The restaurant is empty, and until my friend arrives, the waiter and I are the only people there. Later, a family of three arrive – and that’s it for the duration of our long and leisurely lunch.
If you’re looking for a buzzing atmosphere, this isn’t it.
But if the food is key, then you may agree that Umami is well worth a visit.
Black Midsummer Mango tea (£3.85) takes me back more than 20 years.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I would take the train into London and mooch around Camden Market. I always took the opportunity to visit a tea stall in the Canal Market, run by an elderly gentleman who was charming and enthusiastic about his tea. I always bought his black mango tea, plus one or two others and was very sad when, one year, I discovered him and his stall gone.
I may have to investigate where Umami source this one from, as I’d like to buy some for home!
My friend arrives and we indulge in cocktails, a Lychee Martini for her and a Great Lotus for me. At the moment, these are the only two cocktails available, so here’s hoping everyone likes lychee liqueur as it features in both. The martini mixes the liqueur with Martini Rosso and gin for a sweet cocktail with a slightly bitter and spicy aftertaste. Mine is a combination of lychee liqueur, vodka, grenadine and cranberry juice and is sweet and refreshing.
The starters are available in small (£3 – £5) and sharing (£5 – £9) sizes. We opt for small ones, so we can try more dishes, and our waiter recommends a couple more to add to our list.
Thai Calamari (£5) in a sweet basil, garlic and peppercorn sauce has a fantastic depth of flavour. The thick brown sauce is tangy, sweet and smoky. What excites me the most are the tiny peppercorns – they burst in the mouth like fresh vegetables rather than the shrivelled berries I’m used to, yet have the familiar taste of pepper! I’ve since discovered you can buy these in the UK, from Thai and Chinese grocery stores.
Chicken Satay (£3) is not like the usual chewy affair. The tender chicken skewers have been grilled rather than fried, and taken off the heat before they become tough. Often, the only flavour I can detect is of the peanut sauce itself, but this time the marinade comes through too.
I’ve never come across Tempura Lychee (£3) before. The lychees are stuffed with minced prawn and chicken, then battered and fried and served on top of a thin slice of scallop. Both of us really like the unusual combination of sweet exotic lychee with a savoury filling.
Roti Canai (£5) is a Malaysian dish which originally hails from India, brought over in the early 19th century by Indian immigrant labourers. The buttery, flaky flatbread is just like an Indian paratha and this is served fresh and hot with a thick, yellow dal described on the menu as an “Indian dipping curry”. Both are very good. Although I know that Indian food is very much a part of Malaysian cuisine, it’s still strange for me to encounter Indian flavours in a menu of East Asian dishes.
Gado Gado (£6) is an Indonesian salad of warm crunchy vegetables tossed in a tamarind and peanut sauce. This one features tofu, which I love. It’s a simple dish, where the fresh taste and texture of the vegetables is paramount.
The Keropok prawn crackers (£2) are light and spicy. They’re the style found in Thai restaurants, and far less greasy than the white ones served in UK Chinese restaurants.
The Ped Makham (£12) is a beautifully presented plate of seared duck with tamarind sauce, served over crunchy strips of mange tout and sprinkled with deep fried shallots. The duck is well cooked, pink and tender. The sauce is sweet, sour and intense but neither sickly nor greasy. This is fantastic!
Gang Kiew Wan Gai (£5 / £9) Thai green chicken curry with pea aubergines is a beautiful shade of green, far more vibrant and fresh than the usual pale green offering. The flavour is similarly striking, with fresh herb flavours in a nicely balanced paste. It’s sweet and sharp, not sickly sweet, and has a nice level of chilli heat. The meat is meltingly soft. I’d say the pea aubergines are underripe though.
The Satong Sumbat (£14) is unlike anything I’ve had before and I’m grateful to our waiter for recommending it. Baby squid are stuffed with spiced mince chicken and slow cooked in a spicy broth within a clay pot. The squid casing is soft, the filling is intensely savoury, my friend giggles as she describes it as “really chickeny” but I know just what she means. And that sauce, over some Steamed Fragrant Rice, is fantastic.
The Sambal (£1) is another of our waiter’s ‘must have’ recommendations and again, I’m glad of his advice. This condiment is popular in Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Sri Lanka but the version presented to us is a Malaysian sambal belacun, made with 13 ingredients, of which our waiter can recall chillis, onions, star anise, cinnamon and of course, belacun – fermented ground shrimp. I think sugar and lime juice are also commonly included. Whatever is in it, we both love the spicy, sweet, salty sauce, particularly because it is the flavour of the chillis rather than excessive heat that comes through.
Surprised by our own greediness, but tempted because of how good everything has been so far, we decide to squeeze in dessert. The Kuih Dada (£5) is a Malaysian dessert of pandan-flavoured crepes filled with coconut and palm sugar. This is another intense dish, and we love it. The shredded coconut is soaked in a caramelly palm sugar syrup. Fabulous!
Our last choice is a scoop of Stem Ginger Ice Cream and one of Green Tea Ice Cream. It’s telling that, although we agree that the stem ginger is the weakest thing we’ve been served throughout our meal, there’s nothing really wrong with it – although it has a hint of “perfumed soap” about it, it does taste of stem ginger, as expected. The green tea ice cream is better, with a clean matcha flavour, though it doesn’t quite live up to the best green tea ice cream I’ve ever had, which I experienced at Kimchee recently.
It’s hard to comment on service as we were the only diners in the restaurant for most of our visit and our lovely waiter, Kenneth, knew we were on a review visit. However, he clearly had an excellent knowledge of all the dishes on the menu and was able to tell us more about all those we asked about, and give us personal recommendations.
Often there are one or two stand out dishes that make me want to return to a restaurant. Here, it’s hard to narrow it down and I’d go back for the calamari and lychee tempura starters, the Gado Gado salad, all three of our main dishes and that coconut palm sugar crepe, all of which were utterly delicious.
Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Umami restaurant.