Sushi first became widely available in the United States in the 1980s. Over subsequent decades, sushi traveled from shocking to status as a staple of various Asian restaurant menus, where it varied in quality.
Some Thai menus include a sushi section. We generally don’t hold very high hopes for “afterthought sushi,” but in Mount Lebanon, a new restaurant appeared to take a more intentional approach. Umai — a Japanese word meaning “good” or “delicious” — caught our eye by offering fresh fish for sale, market-style, complete with a display case in the window. Inside, there’s a raw bar with various East and West Coast oysters, and an emphasis on cooked foods from both Thailand and Japan.
On a Tuesday evening, there was also live music from a solo guitarist. Umai’s saffron-colored interior blends traditional Asian elements, like bamboo, lanterns and a painting of cherry blossoms, with modern touches like the room-spanning silver arches and color-shifting bar lighting.
The depth of the menu rewarded our curiosity. In addition to the obligatory specialty rolls and curries, we found Tokyo steamed fish (red snapper with daikon, lotus, ginger and more), ceviche, poke, robatayaki, and tofu fried in both Japanese and Thai styles.
One thing was a given from the get-go: We’d be trying the larb tuna. Larb (or laab) is a Thai salad with protein dressed in a vibrant chili-lime sauce and tossed with herbs and onions atop a bed of lettuce. We commonly see it with minced pork or chicken, but never before with raw fish. Having tried it, we love it. The citrusy dressing — not unlike ceviche, in fact — was wonderful with the chunks of deep red tuna, and the meaty fish was a perfect foil to the aromatic herbs and juicy lettuce. Our only quibble is that we missed one of the signature elements of larb — ground, toasted rice — whose slightly nutty flavor and hint of crunchy texture are a favorite component of this salad’s traditional preparation.
Umai offers three robatayaki: a trio of skewered vegetables, a trio of meat and a trio of seafood. Shishito and kabocha in the first were appealing, but the combo of enoki and bacon in the second won out. Little bundles of enoki — those skinny white mushrooms with the miniature caps — inside bacon rolls soaked up the basting sauce while providing a supple texture. Chicken breast with onion was straightforwardly delicious with the dipping sauce, a thick, slightly nutty concoction, while thick slabs of pork belly offered up umami flavor. The price — $6-8 per trio — was extraordinary for how much flavor and variety each one offers.
The sushi was more ordinary. The tuna was pretty good, but salmon was too soft to distinguish itself from the avocado it was paired with, and the rice tended toward the gummy. But both maki we tried were inside-out, and we liked that the exteriors were just lightly coated in sesame and roe, more like seasonings than ingredients.
Our son is a big fan of mild, peanutty masaman curry, full of chunks of chicken, potato, onion and carrot. He liked Umai’s version enough to want the recipe for the sauce, which was sweeter than the one we make at home. Thai crispy fried tofu — pillowy triangles whose coating lived up to its name — came with a sweet-sour sauce that was also well above takeout grade.
Better yet was Jason’s spicy pad ka pro, which combined a peppery basil stir-fry with a tower of rice topped with a fried egg. He might have liked a dippier egg, the better to soak into the rice, but the dish was still fantastic. It had plenty of heat, but also sweetness, plus that egg-enriched rice as ballast. The ground pork took to the flavors of the sauce superbly, holding together in smaller or larger crumbles that made for a satisfying variety of bites.
Angelique loves tom yum soup and often orders a cup of it at the beginning of a Thai meal. Seeing that Umai offers tom yum as a meal-size noodle bowl, she couldn’t resist. The broth, aromatic with cilantro, scallions, Thai chilis and lemongrass, seemed to have been fortified with a splash of coconut milk. A skein of rice noodles and plenty of sliced chicken breast made this substantial enough for two meals.
Incidentally, we were never asked for a spice level, but everybody was happy with what arrived. The numeric heat scale always implies, to us, that the chef is dumping in chili at the last second, and Umai showed us just how well a good kitchen can do without it.
At the end of our meal, the owner dropped by to say good evening. Her warm, engaging welcome brought a personable close to a delightful meal.