When it comes to sushi, introductions are important.
My first encounter with the popular Japanese delicacies occurred in Malibu, California. I had a pocket full of hundred dollar bills, the company of a stunningly beautiful young woman, a giant bottle of Sapporo beer, and a great view of the Pacific Ocean from the best seat in a swell Malibu restaurant. As you might imagine, I like sushi a lot.
Then there is my vegetarian friend Sandy; her first time involved a baby octopus cut down the middle and served complete with innards and all the other things you would expect to find inside such a creature. She’s not fond of that sort of Japanese cuisine…at all.
When Stephen Wang and David Zheng, owners of Sora in Brevard, decided to open their new restaurant, Umi in Hendersonville, they knew they would have to take into consideration local culinary tastes and prejudices. According to Mary Fon, the restaurant’s charming manager, the challenge was to maintain authenticity while giving Umi diners an experience they would enjoy. Mary, a 20-year veteran of the Japanese restaurant business (including a stint at Wasabi in Asheville), explains that Umi “had to be something different. There are so many sushi restaurants. It’s just saturated. Most of all, we wanted to make food that was healthy, as well as delicious.”
The main concern, she says, was (and remains) freshness. “Seafood has to be fresh. We get fish delivered twice a week from New York. It’s expensive, but worth the cost.”
It’s worth noting that Umi’s sushi chef received his training at New York City’s Ruby Foo restaurant on Times Square.
One of the most popular dishes is the spicy crab salad that the chefs usually hand out in advance of orders at the sushi bar. It’s also available in a larger portion ($6). The salad has a slightly crunchy texture, thanks to a small seasoning of tempura and a mildly spicy flavor from a very interesting Japanese mayonnaise. The Godzilla roll (at $9 one of the more popular rolls on the sushi menu) also owes some of its success to this semi-mysterious Japanese mayonnaise, the recipe for which, Mary will tell you, is a closely guarded secret. As far as I can tell, this crab salad is unique to Umi. At least, I’ve never encountered it anywhere else.
Another popular item is the Bento Box ($19), which Mary explains is based on the Japanese version of the brown bag lunch…only a lot classier. The Bento Box was originally designed for Japanese business people who had very little time to enjoy lunch but still wanted to eat well. It was usually prepared at home and transported to work. The Bento Box at Umi is served on a colorful bamboo tray and involves a variety of menu items, including dumplings, spring rolls, teriyaki chicken skewers, steamed shrimp, salmon, and other tidbits.
Anyone less than enthusiastic about raw fish can still enjoy an Asian experience at Umi. The filet mignon ($23), pan fried with fresh basil, is extremely popular. For the same price, you can also have the filet grilled with yakiniko sauce, a Japanese barbecue sauce traditionally served with beef.
Another alternative to Umi’s excellent sushi is the Chilean Sea Bass ($24), which is steamed with ginger and scallions. Ginger, according to Mary Fon, is a common ingredient in both Chinese and Japanese food, although it’s more likely to be served fresh with sushi and sashimi selections and used as a cooking ingredient in Chinese cuisine.
The fact remains, though, that there is no reason to sidestep Umi’s sushi, even if the alternatives are delicious. You’re in a world class sushi bar; you should eat sushi or sashimi. The difference, for the novice, is that sushi is prepared with rice and other accessories while sashimi — favored by purists everywhere — is just fish. If it’s your first time at a sushi bar, you’re in for a great experience. And if you are a veteran of Japanese cuisine…you’re still in for a great experience. I recommend the Unagi (smoked and baked eel ($2.50) served fetchingly on a pedestal of rice, or the yellowtail (also $2.50), called Hamachi in Japanese.