Fresh Fare: Umi Sushi
11 N. White Horse Pike
I wasn’t sure what to expect when my dining partner and I pulled off the White Horse Pike and into the parking lot of Umi Sushi. The red structure resembled a dive bar from the outside, complete with neon beer signs hanging in the window and a fair share of faded signs taped to the front door.
But apparently I’m the only person in South Jersey who missed the memo on Umi, because I walked into a crowd anxiously waiting for tables on a weeknight. And once inside it was clear that the old “book by its cover” saying stood true. The interior was a comfortable and cozy Japanese-inspired setting, with a busy sushi bar in the back and an equally busy mini-bar on the opposite side. Private rooms stick out from one central space, and every table in every room was full. Did I stumble on a local hidden gem?
The highlight of the night was the first dish that I dove into, appropriately named Treasure Island. A bowl of diced tuna, salmon and white fish was delicately tossed with seaweed, cubed avocado and sonomono sauce, a combination of soy sauce, a bit of lemon and vinegar. The firm, fatty fish was enough of a treat in itself, but combining the creamy avocado and the acid and salt from the sauce created a harmonious bite that I could have eaten all evening.
Another appetizer of shrimp shumai—bite-sized coins of dumplings half-wrapped in paper-thin dough and stuffed with finely diced shrimp then steamed—didn’t hold as much weight. Shumai has become one of my favorite kitchen appetizers in Japanese cuisine, but this variety was fairly forgettable, lacking any real texture or the shrimp flavor that I was expecting.
Sushi options were plentiful, and, not surprisingly, seemed to be the No. 1 choice of most tables. The namesake Umi roll, stuffed with lobster tempura and king crab, then topped with sliced avocado and eel, suffered from way too much tempura batter on the lobster meat. It was all that you could taste, and the rich eel meat, crab and avocado were totally lost. But the butterfly roll, filled with spicy salmon and diced cucumber and finished off with tuna, yellowtail and scallions, really stood out.
It was clear that the sliced fish—especially the tuna and yellowtail on top of the roll—was as fresh as can be, and each flavor stood out while blending together. It was a fresh and crisp roll that was light but still impactful, unlike the heavy and dull Umi roll.
“Dull” was the perfect word to describe the seafood entrée as well, a noodle entrée with shrimp, scallops, artificial crab and vegetables, served with thick udon noodles in a clear broth. The noodles were well-cooked, but that was the only redeeming factor of this flavorless soup, so bland that even a heavy dose of soy sauce couldn’t rescue it. The shellfish was overcooked, and the fake crab was more of a hindrance than a help.
My dining partner and I ended up putting the soup aside and splitting a plate of beef yakiniku, thinly shaved beef sautéed with sliced onions and mushrooms, coated in a sweet and salty brown sauce and served alongside white rice. The beef itself carried so much natural flavor into the sauce, and the earthy mushrooms and crunchy onions lent extra texture to the plate that was really pleasant.
We skipped the usual dessert offerings of fried ice cream and tempura fruit to give up our seat to more waiting guests; this place really brought in a crowd. And while the hot entrees may have lacked a lot of flavor, and weren’t really anything special, it seems clear that Umi’s real specialty comes without flame or oven. It’s their fresh fish, sauces and vegetables that left a lasting impression for me. And isn’t stand-out sushi what you’re really looking for when on the hunt for memorable Japanese food?
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 6 September, 2014).
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