Yumi: Itadakimasu!

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The Aburi Saké Rolls are brought in first, thick slabs of flamed Norwegian salmon enveloping sticks of kani, with some tamago and Japanese mayo. They come in with a set of Golden Rolls, panko-crusted tiger prawns topped with mango and more Japanese mayo. Both rolls are artfully plated, splashed and dashed with the natural colors of a Spring Harvest festival. My host, Donny Elviña, a part owner of Yumi Ramen, Teppan and Sushi Restaurant, offers me the rolls and bids me to try them. I pop one in my mouth like Godzilla with a Honda Jazz and the resulting fireworks of flavors do a New Year’s Dragon Dance on my tongue. Elviña gives me a heartfelt, knowing smile as he deftly takes a roll himself and does the same.

“We’re all Japanese food lovers, all of us partners,” he said between mouthfuls, explaining how the two-year-old Japanese restaurant brand got its start. “None of us are lukewarm fans—we can eat Japanese food day in, day out, 24/7.” This love prompted them to set up Yumi at the Century City Mall in Makati Avenue, Makati City. “Our primary concept was to make a place where families could go to, with generous portions and prices affordable for Dad. However, because of our location, we made our look a bit more hip and sleek for the office crowd in our area.” Still, whether it’s for a family looking for a special place for Sunday lunch after Mass or a bunch of office buddies hankering for a watering hole, Yumi offers the same level of quality for either group. “We try to bring in premium products and ingredients,” he said. “A lot of our raw materials are personally handpicked; it’s one of our secrets.”

Not only do the dishes have to be fresh and wholesome, visual appeal is of great importance as well. “Our food has to look good. It’s got to be at the level of food porn, super nice, with good plating. We put in a lot of effort to make it look that way. We don’t even use food stylists; when we take pics of our food for stock photos, we just use our phone cameras for it.”

That kind of inside-and-outside excellence is no secret for Chef Robby Goco, another one of the driving forces behind Yumi, and he does what he does with an air of gleeful enthusiasm, like a child with a spanking brand-new Gundam kit. “With so many Japanese restaurants in the city, you gotta ask yourself, why open one more?” he said. “It’s really all about identity. If you come up with dishes that are distinctly yours, that you can’t find anywhere else, then you’ve got something going for you. The food we have here in Yumi is all playful, but with respect to its origins, in particular, the essence of Japanese simplicity.”

Keeping it uncomplicated seems to be against the natural impulse of a number of local food establishments. “Pinoys like to overpower dishes with flavor and the end result sometimes seems like an out-of-tune orchestra. So we have to be very subtle in the way we do things with flavors, textures and scents,” he said. Ultimately, Goco straddles the line between making his dishes stand out because of their unique combination of flavors, but does so without making them run you down like a thundering Roketto Panchi. “In the end, it’s all about having fun with it,” he declared. “It’s fun Japanese!”

Fun was an understatement. What came next was a veritable 25th Anniversary Super Sentai Power Ranger Pack in 3D smorgasbord. Pork Belly Sushi (yes, there’s such a thing) was handed over to our table, slices of pork belly with mango shiitake mayo cream. Tender and fatty, the pork belly slices went down quite nicely with the mango shiitake as a novel counterpoint. Alongside it was a Maguro Saké Arugula Salad. (“We also love to drink,” said Elviña. “It’s the reason why Yumi has a hefty bar list.”)

This interesting sushi dish had tuna and salmon with arugula, alfalfa and red radish in peanut dressing (“This is a noncarb solution,” said Goco. “We want you guys to enjoy yourselves and remain healthy.”). It was not what I expected, having the crunchy bits of veggie underneath the succulent slivers of tuna and salmon, but it worked so well that I almost didn’t miss having rice with it. As if to punctuate the idea of using greens to push away the guilt, some Panko-Crusted Soft Shell Crabs were brought in. The breaded soft shell crab nuggets sat sublimely on a bed of fresh arugula, alfalfa and red radish in sesame dressing. (“That’s for the oil from the soft shell crab,” explained Goco, adding, “The greens will absorb the oil and you taste more of the crab. Of course, you can still eat the greens and it’ll be healthy for you either way.”) Although not considered a traditional Japanese ingredient, cheese is fast becoming indispensable in Japanese food, and that fact was made more obvious with the next few dishes. The Hotate Motoyaki (baked panko-crusted sea scallops topped with parmesan cheese) and the Panko-Crusted Norwegian Salmon with Cheese were both tasty treats that worked pretty well. Sauces are also the key to good dishes as exemplified by the next set that was heading our way. Spicy food lovers will enjoy the Sea Scallops in Dynamite Dressing, in which sea scallops are combined with mixed greens and topped with some crispy kani and a fiery secret sauce that, as Chef Robby likes to put it, “It’s like a party in your mouth.” The same held true for the Seaweed Salad Moriawase, a mélange of various Japanese seaweeds in shoyu sesame dressing, and the Shi Hotate Sushi, bite-sized servings of teppan-grilled sea scallop, cucumber and seaweed crumbs. Finally, a bit of Buta Kakuni, or braised pork belly, capped the repast—a dish that goes quite well with saké, beer or cocktails. As a matter of fact, we paired the Buta Kakuni with a Mount Fuji, a towering tipple of frozen margarita threatening to topple, for such was its height—easily the tallest margarita I’ve ever had.

DELIGHTS FIT FOR A DAIMYO

These dishes of Chef Robby take eating to the next level:

Fresh Oysters in Saké Gel.

Served in the same kind of little ceramic spoons normally used for Chinese soup, the fresh oysters swim in seaweed crumbs, truffle oil and crystallized gelatinous cubes of saké. Yes, as bizarre as it sounds, the whole thing works elegantly.

Crispy Mushroom.

These especially crunchy, deepfried oyster mushroom fritters with yumi sauce will make potato chips and French fries seem dull and ordinary.

Cauliflower Chahan.

Ever on a quest to find carbohydrate substitutes, Chef Robby’s current flavor of the month is cauliflower, which he grinds up with other mixed vegetables into a fried rice substitute that feels so guiltless a second portion will only make your dietitian happier.

Angus Prime Sushi.

Prime-grade Angus beef topped with uni slivers? You get that yummy cheesy, avocado taste of fresh uni and rich beefy goodness together. It’s amazing no one’s ever thought of it before, but it’s not surprising, as uni that fresh is not that easy to find.

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