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Fine Fusion

Milwaukee’s Umami Moto

Oct. 8, 2008
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Michael Polaski’s Umami Moto is already a familiar dining spot in Brookfield, where it has gained note for its menu of Asian fusion. A second Umami Moto opened in downtown Milwaukee this summer, located on Milwaukee Street in the former Eve. This time Polaski has two additional partners: Tom Wackman and Omar Shaikh. Shaikh, current owner of Carnevor and former owner of Sake Tumi, brings considerable experience to the partnership.

The decor of the new restaurant is very different from the Brookfield location. While the former is decorated in warm, soothing tones, the new Umami Moto brings a harder, urban feel. The cool tones, almost icy green and white, contrast with jet-black tables, upholstery and pillars covered with rounded river pebbles.

The young and ambitious Dominic Zumpano serves as chef. Though both menus offer sushi and sashimi, Zumpano is more creative with the appetizers and entrees, adding a contemporary edge instead of the typical Asian melange. That said, it is still a very fine sushi bar. The ahi sashimi ($9), comprised of slices of raw Hawaiian tuna, offers quality that is hard to find locally.

Umami is a Japanese term for the source of that savory, elusive fifth taste (the other four are sweet, sour, salty and bitter). Zumpano aims for No. 5, first by employing a delicate curry powder rub on the tuna, and then by serving the tuna over a very un-Japanese red beet puree. Three thin rounds of watermelon float in the puree. Sample one of these with a chopstick—the unexpected combination of beet and watermelon adds up to taste No. 5.

The maki sushis are just as edgy. Leading the pack is the crispy shrimp roll ($11), rolled sushi with a filling of plump shrimp with cashew, coconut, minced seaweed, plum sauce and cream cheese! It’s a very unlikely circle of companions, but it works, even with the intriguing touch of Chinese mustard glaze on the outer surface of the rice.

Try to visit while the heirloom tomato salad ($9) is still on the menu. It’s pricy as far as a side salad goes, but this is all about indulgence. Two types of tomatoes comprise this salad. The first is small, peeled and topped with a custard of olive oil—very edgy. The larger red tomatoes are full of flavor and need little assistance, though the creamy blue cheese and fruity olive oil are both compelling.

Chinese food reappears with a wonton ($9), though this large version deviates from the norm via its minced veal filling with the texture of a firm pt. It is served over pureed parsnips and complemented by halved wild plums. Odd pairings? It may sound like it, but the kitchen is in complete control.

With his experience at Carnevor, Shaikh knows really good beef. For a sampler, try the Kobe slider ($13). Sliders are what crab cakes were five years ago, appearing on every trendy menu. Yet none can approach these. Served with what is called a Buddha bun, it is the size of a Chinese steamed pork dim sum bun, but the crust is firm. Adornments include tomato relish and smoked bacon. An overly sweet mustard is served on the side. The centerpiece is the beef, which is served on the rare side. The texture is buttery and sensuous, a red meat counterpart to the ahi tuna.

It is so easy to focus on the small plates, but forge ahead and try the diver scallops ($21). The price sounds high for three scallops, but these are ultra-jumbo. The scallops have a thin topping of tomato jam and a bed of cauliflower puree. The plate looks like an abstract painting with swirls of intense lobster chowder and green hues of that fruity olive oil. A small scoop of lobster salad is prepared with red grapes.

Given its wide variety, this is just an introduction to the menu. Other items for future visits include fluke sashimi and entrees of char-sui short ribs and miso sea bass.

Beverages include martinis (which seem mandatory on Milwaukee Street) and a somewhat limited wine list, plus a far more interesting selection of sakes. And there is Japanese beer, which goes so well with sushi.

The service is polished and never intrusive. The kitchen proceeds at an even pace, even when there are tables of large parties. It is a rare event when a restaurant of this quality opens in Milwaukee. Umami Moto deserves to be ranked with the very best.

UMAMI MOTO 718 N. Milwaukee St. (414) 727-9333 $$$-$$$$ Credit Cards: All major Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Tate Bunker


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