UMAMI occupies a somewhat curious position in the little city of Strasbourg. It sits perched atop ancient cobbled stone right in the middle of Petite France, the picturesque medieval district, favoured by tourists and choucroute peddlers alike. Though that’s not to say it’s the only restaurant in the area pushing a slightly more refined menu onto those much trodden streets. On the contrary, there’s the wonderful L’Oignon just a few moments away and offerings such as La Cambuse whose menu caters for a similar (though admittedly less interesting) taste.
UMAMI though, knows its position well, favouring to host just 18 guests each evening in a slow, daringly modern, though exceptionally sedate setting, where Japan’s wonderful fifth taste is explored through an evolving menu of international flavours centred around a fusion of French and Japanese cuisines. I would expect it very difficult to obtain a table without a reservation, but that being said, tourists simply flock past in search of fairytales and tarte flambee, so the door rarely swings open after 8:30pm.
Once inside, the intentions of UMAMI become clear. The decor is minimal, mostly white with darker accents, soft almost whispered music plays in the background, while the guests discuss the small menu over large flat tables. The chef, René Fieger works away in a small kitchen towards the back, while his wife, Jessica Fieger handles the tables. It’s intimate, to say the least. And this is where I find Umami’s one downfall. The painstakingly crafted ambience that borrows much from modern Parisien restaurants is often broken by rushed service and a lack of attentiveness, that reminds me of the much busier (though much less deserving) Maison Kammerzel around the corner. However, where the service may sometimes leave one wanting, the food is wonderful, offering an interesting and delightful journey through an otherwise ignored branch of flavour in a city obsessed with its own tried and tested, tourist-pleasing cuisine.
We opted for a 6 course menu with individual wine parings, out of a choice of a 4 & 6 course tasting menus, and a small a la carte. The first course was refreshing and light, a delightfully simple dish of scallop carpaccio with a lime dressing paired with a light Loire Valley that balanced the dish perfectly. Next the Udon noodles swimming in a mushroom broth served with a perfectly creamy poached egg was paired with a Croze hermitage from the Rhône region. The egg whites gripped the perfectly rounded form of the yolk and fell into the broth with a satisfying slither. The flavours, a combination of moreish umami from the mushrooms and decadent creaminess from the egg.
The Turbot was marred slightly by some sloppy service, arriving before we’d had a chance to yield our cutlery from the course before. That aside, the pan-seared Turbot was delicious with the accompanying local Riesling.
I’m not a huge lover of foie gras, but when the occasion (and the chef) is right, I can enjoy it. Thankfully, this proved to be one of those occasions. It was served simply besides a salted pear and a generous drizzle of a thickened soy sauce, with a glass of Pinot Gris from Muré, which shook the senses with a delightfully smokey bouquet that gelled well with the sweetness of the pear and the robust flavours of the foie gras.
The main surprise of the evening arrived though with the chicken. A modest chunk of skin-on chicken, with a blot of creamy cauliflower and one of the most beautifully fragrant, and deliciously divergent hoisin gravies that I’ve ever tasted. Surprisingly, the umami flavours continued into the dessert too, with a Pandan leaf panna cotta, served with a chilli squash sorbet, which left a playful tingle on the tip of the tongue for a few minutes after eating.
In short, UMAMI delivers on its promise of modern tranquility and a soft introduction to the world of the fifth flavour. It deserves its Michelin star for the chef’s careful choice of taste combinations alone. The wines are well matched and the cuisine is some of the most experimental available in the Alsace, with good flavours, real flare and a generous dollop of creativity. However – beware the hit and miss service, and book before 8:45 if you intend to take advantage of the longer course menu.