If last month’s featured restaurant–Chef Kenny Gilbert’s innovative and inspired Silkie’s Chicken & Champagne Bar–was the antithesis of limitation and restraint, Umami Curry is its paragon. In fact, the concept of paring things down as much as possible provided the very impetus for Umami’s recent reinvention.
After operating as a food truck for several years, Gus Budayana made the jump to a brick-and-mortar in Mandarin only to discover that his expansive sushi and hibachi menu proved stressful and problematic in the sit-down format. After consulting with the fine folks at Karai Ramen Bistro, he decided to take a risk on something fairly unique instead–Japanese curry.
In India, “curry” refers broadly to a style of cooking that generally involves blooming a number of spices in fat (usually ghee) to create an intensely flavored sauce to which any combination of vegetables and proteins are added. The most commonly featured spices are cumin, turmeric, ginger, coriander, as well as (but not necessarily) curry leaf. In Thailand, they typically begin as pastes using some of the same ingredients, but tend to feature brighter profiles that lean heavily on uniquely regional flavors like lemongrass, galangal, and even shrimp paste. Both are known to be pretty high on the fuego meter.
Japanese curry on the other hand is thicker, milder, and slightly sweeter than its more common Indian or Thai cousins. The thickness comes not from coconut milk but roux, a combination of fat and flour that is cooked slowly to develop flavor. Although it certainly can be used to simmer meats and vegetables, Japanese curry sauce functions more like a gravy than it does a broth. And that is certainly how it is wielded in Gus’s kitchen where it is treated as a part of a whole, pivotal as it may be.
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As intentionally restrained as Umami’s menu may be, it still allows for a good deal of variety in the expression of the eponymous sauce. The more traditional setups begin with giant pre-warmed bowls to which Gus adds fluffy white rice on one side, curry sauce on the other. From there, each protein is paired with its own set of accoutrements. Brisket braised for 12 hours in soy, miso, and other distinctly Japanese ingredients cozies up to bitter, crunchy broccolini and fried potato adorned by a mild, savory, kimchi-like pickle called fukujinzuke. Katsu, panko-crusted cutlets of chicken or pork, receive a pile of thinly-sliced cabbage in lieu of the brocollini-potato combo. The Hamburg option features a hamburger patty green combination that scores high on the comfort meter, like something mom would have made (if she were Japanese).
But the menu does not start and stop with curry rice bowls. Did you think they forgot about noodles? Au contraire. The curry ramen sees the staple sauce thinned with stock to create a lusciously slurpable soup and if you like your noodles thicc and toothsome, well there’s an udon option as well. Handhelds more your speed? Say no more. Katsu or hamburger in a bun topped with pickles and cabbage and slathered in sauce makes a helluva sando, my friends.
Suffice it to say nothing goes with a bowl of curry rice quite like an ice cold Sapporo, but Umami also offers several craft beer options from the Japanese brewery Hitachino. As for Gus, you can catch him chasing it down with a Ramune soda. Meshiagre!
This Bold Bites feature originally appeared in Void Magazine’s July 2021 issue.