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BIG FLAVORS IN LITTLE CHINA RESTAURANT 

Umami Asian Kitchen offers an alternative to the same-old

Umami Asian Kitchen offers a perfect example of why it isn't always wise to storm the gates of a new restaurant. There are few joints that get it right from the jump, despite every intention to do just that. Opened in January 2009, it has taken Umami the better part of a year to really hit its stride. And word, finally, is beginning to spread of its beguiling charm.

For all its gentility and grace, Chagrin Falls is woefully lacking in creative, elegant dining spots. In a village where burgers, ribs and steak wash over the land like a pesky rash, Umami is a bona fide breath of fresh air. This tiny jewel box of a bistro — seating a scant 30 when full — offers an alternative that is both original and delightful. Svelte and sexy, the shotgun space features hardwood tables, stylish pendant lights and vases filled with lucky bamboo in place of ho-hum blooms.

Skippering this diminutive dinghy is Matthew Anderson, former executive chef of Sapore at the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking. Anderson took the place of opening chef Michael Longo, who has a lengthy culinary history in the immediate area. What makes Umami unique, in addition to its contemporary Asian menu, is how it operates. On most nights, the skeleton crew consists of a server and the chef, who conducts business from a small open kitchen. In a place this petite, bus boys likely would only get in the way.

Like the room, the menu is efficient in its use of space. Pan-Asian in spirit, the dishes range from a smattering of sushi to a fat slab of teriyaki-glazed pork belly. There are nods to Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisine, and the descriptions — studded with words like ginger, dashi, curry, ponzu and tamari — read like a Chinatown shopping list. Dishes are built around stellar ingredients, buoyed by a thoughtful and complementary supporting cast.

Almost without fail, seafood at Umami is impeccable. Silky folds of barely seared big-eye tuna ($9) are served with high-end soy sauce, while the meatier seared white tuna ($8) is paired with a citrusy ponzu sauce. Shaped like teardrops, salmon roll slices ($10) are almost too pretty to eat. Each is capped with a dollop of salty roe. A swipe of spicy aioli adds heat to a gem-like tuna roll ($10), while julienned carrots add snap. Most nights, the kitchen offers a generous sushi and sashimi sampler for $20.

Plump and briny mussels ($9) arrive in a curry-spiked coconut broth that is tasty enough to sip as soup. Better yet, order the pumpkin coconut soup ($4.50), which doesn't suffer the too-sweet fate of typical squash bisques. When it comes to umami, the much-talked-about "fifth taste" that gives the restaurant its name, there is no topping the ridiculously savory roasted shiitake mushroom appetizer ($7.50). Meaty, savory and pleasantly chewy, the 'shrooms pack more flavor than their little packages should bear. The soy butter that lubes the fluffy little goat-cheese dumplings ($8.50) is also dream-state inducing.

Fans of fresh bacon, a.k.a. pork belly, will adore the unapologetically flabby version ($7) offered here. Sporting a blowtorched cap of seared fat, the striated belly is glazed with a candy stripe of teriyaki and perched upon a bed saucy spaetzle. Nearly as flavorful but far leaner, an entrée of sliced duck breast ($21) is seasoned with fragrant five-spice powder and served with cabbage slaw and a noodle cake.

Umami's plancha-seared salmon ($20) will remind diners why the fish was popular in the first place. Crisp on the outside, succulent and sweet within, the rare-cooked fish proves to be the pleasant surprise of one night's visit. Tofu fans will have no complaints about the crispy flanks ($15) that float about in an earthy mushroom broth.

We did have complaints, however, with Umami's rendition of pad thai ($15). If Thai food is an exercise in balance, then this routine is a bust owing to its overpowering sour nature. No amount of sweet or spice could counter the tart sucker punch of tamarind and lime. Restraint is another pillar of Asian cookery, and that seems in short supply in a dish of roasted shrimp ($22). Glazed in a thick, sweet sauce of cranberry and orange, the poor shrimp never had a chance.

In the drinks department, Umami offers crisp, fish-appropriate whites, light and fruity reds, and meat-friendly cabs and zins. There is also a small but choice listing of beers, cold sakes and signature cocktails, which the multi-talented server whips up between tables.

dining@clevescene.com

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