A warning to the single crowd: Umami Ramen & Dumpling Bar is not the place to take a first date.
It’s not that Willy Street’s newest restaurant isn’t charming, well-priced and quietly welcoming — it is all of these things. But Umami’s dishes, delicious though they often are, have a disproportionately high chance of splattering a blouse or dripping on a dress shirt. It’s hard to slurp and dunk without getting sloppy.
Umami, a Japanese word that means “savory,” is the joint venture of Michael Ding and Randy Ng. Both are originally from New York but have Madison ties — Ng married a woman from Madison, and Ding went to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Their noodle house, which had its grand opening in early March, is an attractive addition to the Williamson Street neighborhood. Ng and Ding renovated a 130-year-old home, installing a sleek bar, painting one room bright orange and hanging bamboo from the ceiling. The effect is coolly modern and distinctly urban, a rarity on Madison’s jeans-and-sweatshirts east side.
But if the look leans hipster, the food is all about comfort. Over several visits, beautiful, steaming bowls made across the street at Midwest Clay Project came brimming with broth, tender strips of pork, bamboo shoots, green onions and toothsome noodles (made by RP’s Pasta, a few blocks away).
The tonkotsu ramen ($12) had the most prominent meat flavor, tasting of roasted bones and pork fat. The miso and the earthy, rich veggie ramen (both $10) were quite salty; a flavor “bomb” of smashed garlic ($1) was such a fine addition to the miso, it should become standard.
Beyond ramen, Umami’s menu has plenty to tempt wandering pedestrians off the street. Pork buns ($6 for two) enveloped decadent, fatty pork belly smeared in fruity hoisin, the soft, pillowy bun giving way to a crunch of pickled cucumber beneath. We polished them off and immediately ordered two more.
Dumplings ($6 small, $8 large) came perfectly seared, brown and crunchy on one side and stuffed with crunchy carrots, cabbage and ginger. The chicken and shiitake mushroom dumplings disappeared minutes after they arrived; the “classic” pork and chives were equally good. Dipping sauces, including a sweet soy/scallion and one spiked with warm chili, all had excellent flavor.
Salads, though difficult to eat with chopsticks (forks are available on request) were adequate. Roasted mushrooms and arugula ($5 small, $8 large) were tossed with a light sesame soy dressing. An apple walnut frisee salad ($6/$9) with dried cranberries and aged goat cheese was tasty, but seemed out of place with the rest of the menu.
The summer rolls ($5) seemed a bit odd, too. The vegetables inside were chopped so finely, it was hard to distinguish their different textures. An accompanying spicy peanut sauce came in its component parts — sweet, thin peanut butter and chili paste.
For cocktail hour, Umami has a long list of reasonably priced sake ($4-$13) and an inventive list of “saketinis.” Among the best were the O-cha Mark ($6), a mix of green tea, mint and Maker’s Mark that smoothed out the bourbon, and the Hanami Blossom ($7), a slightly sweet citrus cocktail with sake as the base.
Lunch specials, including $10 for dumplings and ramen, are likely to draw students and downtown office drones alike; Plan B dancers can stop by for a fabulous house-made berry sorbet ($4) or a delightfully messy ice cream sandwich ($4) with chocolate shortbread made by Madison Sourdough.
Despite sourcing locally, Umami feels like a restaurant that could become the cornerstone of a franchise. That’s deliberate.
“You can get this in New York or Japan or anywhere,” Ding said. “We wanted to bring a little bit of a modern contemporary New York Asian flavor here in Madison.”
After the outdoor Dane County Farmers Market opens on April 16, Umami plans to introduce a seasonal ramen. Ding also plans additional seating outside on the home’s extended porch.
Outdoor dining should help with visibility — Umami blends in so well with the neighborhood, the small sign (and parking lot) can be hard to spot. But with its friendly service, casual feel and those addictive pork buns, Umami is already on its way to becoming a savory destination for a deliciously messy third date.