- Umai Mi wins the green papaya salad-off
I seem to attract women of a certain age. The Japanese lady seated next to me at Umai Mi’s kitchen-facing chef’s bar somehow felt that I would be receptive to her opinions on the ramen (too spicy for Japanese, she didn’t understand the mayo, too bad the noodles weren’t fresh) and the shrimp-filled shu mei dumplings (on the money). She turned out to be a tough critic elsewhere, too, but finally admitted that everything had been very good, if unconventional—exactly what Jason Dady seems to want for this lively reincarnation of Bin 555.
Umai Mi Modern Asian Fare (“So not authentic it’s absurd”), announces itself with more visual verve than any of Dady’s previous operations (interiors were done by husband and wife team Robert and Carol Martelle Tatum, with carpentry by Jason Paschall), and the chile-colored space sets one up for a take-no-prisoners eating experience. With a few exceptions, all expectations are met.
We start with cocktails. These are not knee-jerk efforts. Yet despite good base notes, the barrel-aged gin martini with kaffir lime leaf fell flat, and the Lady Bird with tequila, Thai chili and ginger was unbalanced toward the hot end of the spectrum. Equally one-note were the star anise pickles that arrived next, the potent spice more than dominating the day. But then the green papaya salad appeared: Katie, bar the door.
Dady seems to be going mano-a-mano here with both conventional Asian and modern renditions such as Tuk-Tuk’s, and a face-off would be fun to witness. But for now, the coin toss comes up Umai; I’d only add a touch more palm sugar to the minty-hot and marvelously crunchy mix. Just as impressive, though much lower-key, were the DIY assembly “sliders” featuring steamed rice-flour buns, beef tongue that’s brined for 24 hours then cooked sous vide before being marked on the grill and slabs of kimchee-inflected Asian pear. The heat here is modest, textures are on the sensual side and the package is perfect.
Dady’s wine list is appealingly unconventional yet entirely matched to the menu. Despite this, we continued investigating cocktails and were rewarded: Both the barrel-aged Old Fashioned, with its zing of bird chili, and the Sazerac-based Little Bit Country, with maraschino and maple syrup, came across as lively yet balanced—and as excellent companions to tongue and tangy salad alike. They also matched up like an online dating site with the entrées to come, which, sadly, did not include the half Peking pig head.
Having visited the website menu beforehand, I couldn’t help but notice Dady’s tongue-in-cheek take (with actual tongue and cheek?) on moo shu pork. I was looking forward to the half-a-head plating possibilities, but apparently plating was not the only issue leading to the dish’s demise; it also was very time-consuming and has been replaced with a tamer, un-Ichabod version. Recovering from disappointment with the aid of the Old Fashioned, we moved right along to spicy cumin lamb, an exquisitely grilled rack paired with fried chunks of loin served together with contrasting mint and iceberg lettuce. It’s rare that I yearn for more cumin in this, the spiritual home of Tex-Mex, but más comino would have driven the point home.
The lamb is considered a “large” plate and merits a reasonable $19. At $13 and $15 respectively, the unagi jungle curry and panang curry with crispy duck and crispy noodles are considered bowls and are both products of the massive mortar and pestle that is not just an adornment on the chef’s counter.
They are also both badass. Dady has elected to spend the kitchen’s time hand-grinding the curries from scratch, not with making noodles. The decision makes special sense here as the noodles ultimately melt magnificently into the vibrant curry, leaving the duck to supply the textural element. But if the duck is dangerously good, the jungle curry with eel and Japanese eggplant is utterly mind-blowing, the ultimate umami experience, at once mellow and challenging. In contrast to any expectations regarding halved pig’s heads, there will be no eels apparent in this dish—just fantastic and well-integrated flavors.
Should dessert now seem essential, go for it; the appropriately quotation-marked “Thai Iced Coffee” is well worth investigating. The only challenge here is knowing when to stop. If at all.
5:15 p.m., March 5, 2014: This article has been corrected to properly identify the interior design team.
555 W Bitters,
The Skinny An irreverent take on classic and modern Asian, with dishes ranging from doctored deviled eggs to tamarind-lacquered brisket and miso-marinated sea bass
Best bets Barrel-aged Old Fashioned and Little Bit Country cocktails, green papaya salad, beef tongue steamed buns, unagi jungle curry, panang duck curry, “Thai Iced Coffee.”
Hours 11am-2pm (Dim sum), 2-9pm (full menu) Sun, 11am-10pm Mon-Thur; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat; Happy Hour 4-6pm Mon-Fri; 11am-2pm Sun