Umu: Kansai Calling

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I make my way past manicured hedges to the tiny, pebbled footbridge. As I cross, carp swim lazily by towards a foliage-filled waterfall where a golden Buddha eternally contemplates the vastness of creation. My footsteps echo on the wooden porch on the opposite side of the sandy gardens as I head towards the latticed doors. Upon stepping inside, dozens and dozens of tablets of dark, lacquered wood bearing golden characters line the wall, seemingly in silent and irrevocable testament to the ephemeral nature of this place. I whip out my smartphone and engage a translator app, curious to know what the kanji symbols on the tablets mean. Are they the names of Japanese heroes gone by? Or unutterable prayers to Hachiman, Raiden, Inari or a dozen other saturnine deities? Do they hold ancient wisdom that could be the key to the mastery of martial disciplines beyond mortal ken?

After what seems like an eternity, my translator app engages: salmon… mackerel… squid… flounder… octopus… tuna…

Ah. I’ve come to the right place. The moral of the story? Everything looks waaaaay cooler in kanji.

Umu Restaurant in Dusit Thani Hotel Makati will take you to the cultural heart of Japan, the Kansai region. That’s exactly how I felt, stepping into the cavernous bar area, with its slatted ceilings, hemp rope-covered pillars and broad hardwood sushi counter. Cream colored barrels of sake sit in strategic points around the restaurant subtly reminding diners of what delights they can partake of – all they need do is ask.

Chef Hiroyuki Fukata, Umu’s head chef, comes in to greet us, and his bespectacled and inscrutable countenance lights up when I ask him about the restaurant’s exterior design influences. “It’s Kyoto-style,” he beams. “I wanted it to look like the banks of a river, just like in Kyoto. In the summertime, we put out tables to eat out and enjoy the river.” That refreshing ambiance carries over to their goals. “Umu means nature in Japanese. It is creation.”

That spirit of renewal translates into a level of excellence and perfection normally only reserved for the children of the Land of the Rising Sun. “Our concept is to offer fresh seafood every day,” states Fukata. “We get our fish hand-carried and flown in from Japan, Norway and other parts of the world twice a week. We also offer whole steaks from Japan, including Kobe beef. We also offer teppanyaki.”

One of Umu’s chefs comes in bearing a richly marbled slice of Kobe beef. He stands behind the teppan counter and starts arranging condiments and vegetables. “Teppanyaki is actually a French influence – it’s French cuisine,” reveals Fukata. “You normally won’t find a teppanyaki restaurant marketing itself as Japanese in Japan. Most hotels like having a teppanyaki station though – that’s why you can find them there. Japanese restaurants and teppanyaki restaurants are separate entities in Japan.”

The prime beef sizzles merrily as it is doused in oil, and with a grand flourish he pours rice wine on it. The steak flares and with ninja-like reflexes, the chef avoids a two-foot gout of flame as it rages a hairs-breadth away from his face. Fukata smiles – another day at the office for him – and continues his discourse.

“Teppanyaki beef quality is very important – that’s why we only use high-grade beef for Umu. The smell of the food is key. Every element to make the food appealing can’t be disregarded. How the teppanyaki is done is just as important as well. Filipinos love teppanyaki – they love to see food being cooked in front of them. It’s a very big draw. They’re also a fun-loving people so we make sure to connect with them on that level too. We make it a point that our teppan chefs are funny and engaging as well, and they chat up the customers while cooking, with lots of jokes and good fun. They put on a good show and that’s all part of the meal as well, the whole experience. The teppan grill is a stage.”

As if on cue, the teppan chef presents a steaming plate of expertly grilled Kobe beef and a siding of cabbage, lettuce and green capsicum. My chopsticks suspend a juicy square of meat and as it pops into my mouth, I feel the flavorful flesh, fat and oil headily making their way into my soul. There are few pleasures to equal Kobe beef, and even fewer are street legal.

However, teppanyaki steak isn’t the only thing that Umu does well. A lovingly decorated sushi platter was brought in, the Sashimi Gosyumori or chef’s personal selection of five different kinds of fish. It was chockfull of scrumptious slivers of two kinds of tuna, halibut, squid, salmon and shrimp sushi spiked with chili. Thick clouds of vapor billowed from the center as a dry ice core bubbled atop a bamboo container in the center, adding to the mystique of the dish. Slipping sweet salmon morsels between my tongue and teeth, I felt myself drifting into reverie, thoughts of fragrant forests, elegant cobbled paths and welcoming temples.

Arigato gozaimasu, Umu! Onegaishimasu!

The Aesthete of Nippon

Japanese food is influenced by many factors – historical, cultural and economic. The signature elements are quite distinct; the method of presentation is simple, but artful and elegant. Flavors tend to be subtle to the point of ethereal, but having complexity that is brought out by masterful techniques.

Freshness is paramount, although pickled, dried and salt-cured dishes have a place in their cuisine as well. The Japanese believe that food shouldn’t just be consumed by the body, but by the spirit as well, which is why they take great pains in putting together dishes of simple but exquisite beauty.

The simplicity of the dishes is largely due to Zen Buddhism’s emphasis on the removal of clutter in one’s life, the Shinto beliefs in zealous fastidiousness and a reflection of socio-economic difficulties from certain periods in Japanese history. In a nutshell, the Japanese work with what they have, but they get the best of it, keeping it simple but tasty and pretty.

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