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Umami offers classic cocktails with Japanese flair

“We went a little off-kilter.”

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If you haven’t had charcoal or wasabi in a cocktail lately, then you clearly haven’t stopped into Umami. In addition to sake and beer, the new Lawrenceville izakaya (the Japanese term for a casual pub-style eatery) boasts a drink menu brimming with unexpected ingredients to complement its menu of small plates, grilled bites and sushi.

The elaborate cocktails are not quite what you’d find at a traditional izakaya. “A lot of the time, Japanese cocktails are just shochu and fruit … they’re very simple,” explains Lou DiDonato, who created the cocktail list through his consulting business SLC/PGH. And although Umami aims to capture the spirit of a tiny Japanese pub, DiDonato looked beyond Japan for inspiration. “We started with the classics — old-fashioneds, margaritas, Ramos gin fizzes,” he says. “But then we went a little off-kilter.”

DiDonato’s wife provided a captive audience for his experiments, as she was home recovering from ankle surgery while he honed the cocktail list (the ultimate post-operative care). Not everything works with Asian flavors — DiDonato recalled an early aperol-based drink with a grimace. But with the help of his wife and an assortment of friends and coworkers, DiDonato put together a cocktail list that’s unlike any other in Pittsburgh.

The drinks feel approachable thanks to the classic templates and whimsical names. (#GodzillaTears, anyone?) But each one has what DiDonato calls “an Umami twist.” The most popular is a rye old-fashioned that adds a bit of muddled wasabi and a skewer of Luxardo-soaked kumquats. Other cocktails swap out the base spirits for sake or shochu (a spirit typically distilled from rice or barley) or introduce savory elements like beet and basil. And true to Japanese cuisine — where presentation is as important as flavor — each cocktail comes elegantly garnished with everything from a dusting of binchotan charcoal to a charred shishito pepper.

Umami’s cocktail menu is familiar yet fresh, adding one more can’t-miss watering hole to Lawrenceville’s booming lineup.

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