The Dish: Umami at Umaya

by Catherine Trifiletti

A downtown izakaya showcasing Japanese comfort food. 

A bowl of Umaya’s pork ramen.

Eat, drink, eat. Repeat.That’s the mantra at the crux of Penn Quarter’s Umaya, where diners are encouraged to imbibe, relax and stay awhile. Izakayas, or gastropubs, are fixtures in Japanese culture, frequented by an after-work set looking to unwind over drinks and snacks. Evelyn Chong, Umaya’s manager, hopes that the restaurant embodies the concept enough so that people will casually drop in and linger at their tables.“We don’t want to be stuffy,” she says, quickly adding:“We don’t turn tables.”

Since its opening in January, Umaya’s laid-back sentiment has drawn a solid happy hour crowd and, because of its proximity to CityCenter and Chinatown, groups of tourists and lunch-goers as well. Chong says the extensive menu is meant to reflect this diversity of visitors. Chef Nick Hoang, who has had previous stints at Kushi Izakaya and Cafe Asia, helped shape the menu along with owner Charles Zhou to include specialty maki rolls and nigiri, donburi (“rice bowls”), ramen, robatayaki (Japanese street snacks) and a range of appetizers and small plates that run the gamut from basic edamame to whole lobster sashimi, which will likely be convulsing on the plate when it is served.“The goal is to keep our identity as a Japanese restaurant,” Chong says, “but not ostracize people.”

Though the comprehensive menu is meant to suit everyone’s taste, freshness is the common thread that ties together traditional dishes with others that are less so.“You are supposed to taste what you are eating,” Chong says of Japanese fare, citing Umaya’s simply grilled robatayaki as a prime example. Skewers are scorched on an open robata grill using unobtrusive Japanese charcoal that allows the flavor of the meat itself to shine. Umaya also values presentation, stemming from the traditional Japanese motto “See first, smell then taste.” So, don’t be surprised to see gold flakes sprinkled on slices of sashimi.Whether it be a quick bite of robata or a full on omakase tasting with chef’s selection of fresh fish, Chong says,“The ultimate goal is to make everyone happy.”

Umaya | 733 10th St NW | | 202-290-3443

WHAT TO ORDER: Miso sea bass ($9) and pork belly ($7) robatayaki Japanese A5 Wagyu beef sashimi (MP) Toro sashimi (MP)

This article appeared in the holiday 2017 issue of Washington Life Magazine.


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