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I think I just got hit by an umami bomb. And I liked it. A lot.
The place was Soma, the buzzing new Franco-Japanese restaurant on Houston’s Washington Avenue. The occasion was a multicourse tasting menu devised by Soma’s executive chef Robert Gadsby (you remember the great Gadsby, the culinary provocateur formerly associated with Noé, in the Omni Houston Hotel). While a friend and I lounged about in Soma’s chocolate-and-persimmon- colored dining room, admiring the contrast between the room’s contemporary lines and its soaring panels printed with images of geishas, I pondered what Gadsby was up to in his most recent digs.
As readers of food magazines and blogs know, umami (“oo-ma-me”) is the elusive “fifth taste.” It has been understood by Asian cooks forever and has had a name since it was isolated by a Japanese academician a century ago. But despite its renown, every ten years or so it is breathlessly rediscovered as if it had never existed.
Umami doesn’t really have a distinct flavor (Westerners aren’t particularly adept at identifying it; Easterners find it more familiar). Mysterious or commonplace, it works its magic by enhancing other flavors. If this calls to mind monosodium glutamate, it should: Umami is the “savory” tang associated with the amino acid glutamate. Don’t freak, though. The chemical occurs naturally in foods (in addition to coming in jars of white powder labeled MSG). But whatever it is, umami is powerful, and when a clever chef orchestrates a meal of umami-rich foods, watch out.
At least, that’s what I was thinking when I slurped up our amuse-bouche of a poached quail egg topped with caviar and truffle oil, the latter famously rich in umami. The morsel was simple yet subtly delicious, getting my friend and me in the mood for the soup course. My choice was a thick chowder loaded with crisp corn, pearly lump crabmeat, and cubes of umami-rich potato. My friend chose a thin but deeply flavorful shiitake-ginger miso broth centered by an outsized duck wonton. Both the mushrooms and the soy-based miso had the u- word in spades.
By now we were in the palm of Gadsby’s hand, which was a good thing, because we hit a rough patch with a tough, tragically overcooked Kobe beef roll. Even an umami-drenched sesame-and-truffle sauce couldn’t save the dish. But, happily, we got back on course with a gorgeous salmon filet poached in olive oil and served in a soy broth jazzed with wild mushrooms.
The evening reached its apex with a pile of fabulous short ribs, deboned and surrounded by an aromatic medley of finely chopped cipollini onions, fingerling potatoes, and infant carrots. We could have rolled off into the sunset at this point, but there were two courses yet to go: a four-cheese selection and a small apple tart topped with a surprisingly delicate sweet-savory cheddar ice cream (yes, cheese has tons of umami—but you knew that).
By the time the check arrived, we were sated but not stuffed, which is what happens when you’re in the control of a master craftsman. If this is Gadsby’s umami bandwagon, I’ll hitch a ride anytime. Bar. 4820 Washington Ave (713-861-2726). Lunch Tue–Fri 11:30–2:30. Dinner Sun & Tue–Thur 5–10, Fri & Sat 5–11. Closed Mon. Reservations recommended. $$–$$$ W+