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Umami co-owner and chef Eric Lee and wife Jenny. Photo by David Boylan
ColumnsLick the Plate

Lick the Plate: Umami Japanese delights in San Marcos

My familiarity with the newish development called North City in San Marcos until this point has been limited to occasional workouts on the beautiful Cal State San Marcos track nearby.

Although for those of you unfamiliar with the area, there are also some nice hikes at places like Double Peak and fishing at Discovery Lake. Adding to those attractions is a culinary renaissance of sorts in the North City culinary corridor as they are calling it. In addition to Umami, there is a Prep Kitchen outpost, Grit Coffee, Urge Gastropub and Newtopia Cyder.

Umami opened Nov. 1 but was running like an established restaurant when I visited during their second week open. They feature primarily sushi and Japanese cuisine but also dabble in other Asian dishes on the vast menu. It was somewhat difficult to narrow down our choices, as everything looked very appealing.

The extensive menu of Japanese and Asian specialties includes appetizers like Chicken Karage and Spicy Tuna Canape, traditional salads such as Ika Sansai and Salmon Skin Salad, as well as a full sushi menu, including unique rolls like the Ninja with spicy tuna, krab, cilantro, jalapenos, sesame seed and fire sauce.

Crunchy rolls are popular these days and their version is the Vegetable Roll with spring mix, avocado, kanpyo, gobo, cucumber, fried asparagus and topped with crunchy flakes and sweet sauce.

There are classic Japanese Bento Boxes featuring Grilled Calamari and Spicy Pork for the entrees, as well as a selection of ramens including the Shio Ramen made with chicken broth and the Tonkotsu Ramen with house-made pork broth. On top of all that variety they are doing the Bao Bun thing and those are fabulous as well. The one I tried was filled with pork belly and that is quite the nice combination.

One of the highlights of the evening was the Bluefin Tuna Sushi that was like butter. Although you have to say that like “butta” because it was so melt-in-your mouth tender and delicious. At some point in my life I am going to splurge and eat Bluefin or Toro until I am full … with really good sake to go with it.

It is quite possibly my favorite thing to eat and while it can be a bit pricey, it is worth every cent. There is no need for dipping in soy sauce and wasabi with this prime piece of raw fish goodness, just enjoy it as is with no distractions.

Speaking of sake, Umani features Japanese beers, along with a selection of rotating craft beers as well as a full menu of warm and cold sakes and a limited selection of wine.

I was so happy to see Mochi Ice Cream on the dessert menu, as it’s one of my favorite desserts. For those that don’t know about this delightful treat, mochi ice cream is a small, round confection consisting of a soft, pounded sticky rice dumpling formed around an ice cream filling. Something about that texture surrounding ice cream makes me very happy.

Umami is a family-owned restaurant backed by David Sasuga; CEO of San Marcos-based Fresh Origins Microgreens, a local purveyor respected by chefs nationwide for its extensive selection of microgreens and edible flowers his family has farmed since 1995. I’m thinking that might be a fun column for future reference.

The creative direction for Umami Japanese comes from Sasuga’s brother-in-law, co-owner and chef Eric Lee who you may have heard of from other area projects like Blue Ocean in Carlsbad, and his wife Jenny. Chef Lee runs the day-to-day operations behind the sushi bar with Executive Chef James Han managing the kitchen.

Han has made his stateside return after 10 years of experience in Guam and Saipan, most recently as chef de cuisine of VIP services at Imperial Palace Resort in Saipan and Chef de Cuisine at the Hyatt Regency in Guam.

So yeah, there is some serious talent in the Umami kitchen. That talent won a Golden Fork Award for best dish at August’s Taste of San Marcos.

Umami Japanese is open Sunday to Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Thursday to Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Find them at 251 North City Drive, Suite 122 in San Marcos and online at