Flavor: High-end Japanese steak, seafood and sushi
Ambiance: As Zen as an overcrowded eatery can manage
Back in 1976, Saul Steinberg submitted a drawing that would become perhaps the most famous New Yorker cover ever. A distorted view of the world from Ninth Avenue, the illustration has since been reproduced on T-shirts, co-opted by Hollywood (Steinberg sued when Columbia Pictures used an uncannily similar sketch to advertise Robin Williams’ hammy pre-perestroika comedy Moscow on the Hudson—and won) and parodied by printers in every major American city.
Scanning Asheville’s culinary landscape always puts me in mind of Steinberg’s drawing, in which places are shrunk and expanded to reflect New Yorkers’ perspectives as to which regions matter. An Asheville Diner’s View of the World would probably include much of the American South, a good chunk of Italy and all of Japan. Mexico would make the map, but most other countries—even those with admirable kitchen traditions—wouldn’t merit even a tiny dot. Vietnam? No. Korea? Nope. Ethiopia? Not here.
But the lopsided nature of Asheville’s ethnic restaurant scene apparently doesn’t trouble restaurant-goers—or restaurateurs, who keep opening Italian and Japanese restaurants. Downtown Asheville is poised to have three more Italian restaurants than it did just one year ago, with the recent additions of Modesto and Sugo, and the planned debut of Cucina 24. In Hendersonville, La Riserva is slated to open soon, joining newcomers West First and Potenza on Main Street.
Hendersonville, though, has largely been spared the crush of Asian-esque eateries that’s lately hit Asheville, with CF Chan’s, Kanpai Sushi and Kubo’s now sharing a street with the Noodle Shop, Doc Chey’s and Wasabi. Indeed, since Hendersonville’s Asaka outlet was felled by a wrecking ball, the closest the town has come to anything approaching Japanese cuisine are the sushi displays at its many Chinese-style buffets. If the stretch of U.S. 64 that runs between Hendersonville and Brevard is looking a little haggard, it may be because locals hankering for anything more sophisticated than a California roll have been repeatedly making the 16-mile trek to Sora Japanese, the gem of a sushi den that opened in Brevard’s Wal-Mart shopping plaza in 2005.
Now the good folks behind Sora have decided to save their rambling patrons a trip by opening Umi, a stylish Japanese steak-and-sushi restaurant, in Hendersonville. Residents besotted by its Eastern-tinged elegance and impeccably fresh seafood have already made the hostess’ job one of the toughest in town, piling their names onto a waiting list for tables that reads like an area phone book at 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night.
As these locals—slaphappy at the prospect of a place where they can finally slurp cooled sake from red-and-black lacquered boxes—have learned, Umi is a lovely place to dine. While its menu is padded with a few too many humdrum plates, the restaurant benefits from engaged service, superlative presentation and some standout sashimi. Even its missteps are benign: The most serious charge that could be leveled against Umi is that its food is sometimes forgettable. But, then again, eating is only one element of the experience so treasured by raw-fish-deprived diners in Henderson County that the local-scene mavens over at Bold Life magazine named Umi “the new spot to meet and greet” the very month it opened.
Umi features a panoply of requisite dishes swiped from various Japanese-American cooking fads, from the teriyakis popularized in the 1960s by the Benihana restaurant chain to the fried tempuras championed by ‘70s vegetarian eateries to the fat sushi rolls that got hot in the ‘80s. A selection of noodle dishes and simple grilled meats and fish are also on offer. “Everything is so good,” sighed our server, her affection for the restaurant apparently undimmed by what she admitted had been an exhausting few months of uber-popularity.
She steered us toward a starter of oyster shooters, an Asian riff on the deliciously déclassé dish that doubles as an appetizer and cocktail. Umi’s version submerges meaty shucked oysters in a slightly viscous ponzu sauce thinned with sake and spiked with ginger. In a welcome twist on the usual bar-borne error of disguising a sub-par oyster with punchy broth, Umi’s oysters far outshine their under-spiced sauce. I ended up fishing the oysters out of their sleek shot glasses and leaving the liquid behind.
Most of the other appetizers are deep-fried versions of ingredients that show up elsewhere on the menu, including tofu, shrimp, calamari, crab and sugar peas, which I found a mite too greasy for a meal-opening snack. My tablemates adored the spicy-crab salad, although I didn’t think the presumably high-quality crab deserved to be slathered in mayonnaise and feathered with crunchy tempura flakes. The dish, like the salmon and filets billed as “entrées from the kitchen,” almost seemed designed to appeal to the folks in Hendersonville who have grown accustomed to not eating Japanese food and aren’t necessarily interested in starting now.
Both the beef teriyaki and “King of the Sea” plate, featuring lobster tail, scallop and shrimp, were grilled quite well, but a drenching of lemony butter submerged the seafood’s flavor. The steak was taken down a notch by a teriyaki sauce that stressed sugar over subtlety and an uninspired accompaniment of mixed vegetables that made the plate seem like something that might emerge from a family-casual restaurant kitchen. Still, neither dish was distasteful.
Some folks might just want to stick to the sushi, given that most of it is so good. I adored the sweet eel, and was taken with a supremely flavorful rendition of bean curd. While red clams proved too tough for my taste, the mackerel and fluke were admirably fresh and well-handled.
Umi also produces a dozen gorgeous rolls, all of which manage to pack so much flavor into their multicolored wrappers that wasabi is rendered irrelevant. Although the rice was overcooked the night I tried them—making a spoon a more appropriate utensil than chopsticks—I enjoyed the heart-shaped Sweetheart Roll, stuffed with salmon and overflowing with chunks of mango, and the jalapeño-capped Green River Roll, starring spicy lobster and the oh-so-excellent eel.
Overall, the restaurant is a terrific addition to the Hendersonville dining scene. And if Hendersonville can diversify its ethnic offerings, I’m hoping Asheville can too: Bi Bim Bop, anyone?