Umami is serious fun

RICK NELSON | Updated 10/16/2013

Pop-up Umami creates Asian flights of fancy in north Minneapolis.

Leslie Plesser

The restaurant that is currently setting Instagram on fire hasn’t taken up residence in the North Loop or Uptown. Nope, the faithful are streaming to north Minneapolis.

Umami by Travail materialized, seemingly overnight, a few weeks ago inside the abandoned outlet of a fried chicken chain. What’s probably the Twin Cities’ first bona fide pop-up restaurant has sprung from the hotbed of maverick creativity known as Travail Kitchen and Amusements. Sidelined by the construction of Travail’s new Robbinsdale home, owners James Winberg, Mike Brown and Bob Gerken haven’t been sitting on the sidelines. Not when there’s cooking to do and serious fun to be had.

Umami is a reservations-only culinary adventure in the form of a 10-course, $40 dinner. After securing a prepaid online reservation, diners are seated at four communal tables. Then the group is inundated with one flavor- and texture-packed dish after the next. A procession of familiar Asian tent poles — ramen, congee, spring rolls, dumplings, kimchee and more — are transformed into unconventional flights of fancy that manage to taste expensive.

“It’s delicious, and I’m not even sure what I’m eating,” gushed the woman next to me. Agreed, with silky, carefully seared cubes of tofu resting in a shallow pool of preserved fish stock and sharing the plate with thumb-size pieces of miso-braised octopus, a fragrant shiso foam and cool orange accents. It was also as striking as a midcareer Miro.

Equally impressive was a standard-setting bowl of bouncy, house-made ramen, with mouth-melting slices of five-spice-seasoned pork belly locked inside a ham hock broth, each spoonful brimming with smoky shiitake mushroom intensity. Simplicity rules, too: Witness spectacularly tender bulgogi-esque beef short ribs.

Seemingly incongruous flavor combinations are frequently made to feel inevitable. Ponzu added just the right acidic element to an open-faced dumpling filled with black garlic and smoked ham hock. An intensely flavorful fish sauce accented tiny, herb-packed spring rolls and pristine hamachi. Cross-cultural creativity goes into overtime when rice porridge bears traces of an Asian-inspired shrimp and grits, with cool pops of grapefruit dancing with jolts of jalapeño and ginger.

A trio of house-made sausages dazzled. Still, they were overshadowed by fried chicken drumsticks, their biting soy-garlic marinade inserting deeply savory notes into the cracklingly crispy skin and outlandishly juicy meat.

(By the way, the kitchen maintains a small takeout menu, a handful of $5 items headlined by a half-dozen of those fantastic chicken wings. Not only are they cheaper than the wings sold next door at Little Caesars, they’re roughly 782 times better.)

The shameless theatricality is a total hoot. Another chicken dish was finished with a tableside pour of a cleanly fragrant coconut curry broth. Tiny burning coals sent up aromatherapeutic smoke signals of burning rosemary, a sensory complement to a beautifully roasted array of bok choy, cauliflower and broccoli.

No, Umami doesn’t take itself seriously. The craft of cooking, yes; the dining-out experience, no. With frat-boy chug-a-lugs and regular forays into karaoke, the staff generates a lively Oktoberfest-in-Chinatown atmosphere. Everyone on the payroll is clearly having a blast, and they’re not shy about showing it.

The good news is that Umami will continue past its pop-up expiration date, with a format tweak. The current tasting menu will be replaced by a dim-sum-style setup.

With Umami, the Travail crew has proved, once again, that one restaurateur’s previously ignored location is another’s dining-out gold mine.

Umami by Travail

Where: 904 W. Broadway Av., Mpls. 612-246-9939. www.umamiby

Hours: Reserved seatings 5:20 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Wed.-Sat. Limited takeout 5-9 p.m. Wed.-Sat.

Tickets: $40, tax and tip inclusive. Beverages extra.