an American fish in & out of Estonian waters

Umami’s Culinary Mission to Tallinn’s Black Hill

 

Sometimes it seems that I’m the only person in Estonia who isn’t a fan of the päeva praad – that lunch-time special that most restaurants across the country offer every weekday to attract customers and fill their tables during the middle of the day. The reason I object to it – and try to avoid it – is that the normal approach to the päeva praad tends to promote the mass production of inferior food. As a result, it just encourages that whole “food is fuel” philosophy as well as a general dumbing down of the national palate. Yes, it tends to be quick and cheap. And yet, a lunch-time special should also be something satisfying and tasty that encourages you to come back again to order another dish off the regular menu. Sadly, I’ve tried the päeva praad at several Tallinn restaurants that I’ve been curious about – only to be so turned off by their food that I’ve lost any interest in tasting anything else that they might cook. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather make my own lunch.

Umami, on the other hand, is one of the few places in Tallinn that approaches the whole päeva praad concept in the right way. They use this obligatory daily special to showcase their cooking in order to make you want to come back again on an evening or weekend together with your family and friends. Yes, their päeva praad may be a couple of Euros more expensive than at most other places in Tallinn – but the extra effort that they put into their food will make it worth your while. It’s almost as if the owners have decided to go with the whole “Restaurant Week” concept every day of the year. In other words, you get people to visit your restaurant for that first time without requiring a large investment of their time or their money. Your goal is for them to come back again to try even more of your food. And who knows? Maybe if enough people learn how to enjoy good food, they might even start to expect it everywhere that they go. In any case, any restaurant that gets Estonians to “think food and not fuel” is my kind of a place. Not only does it help develop the country’s food culture, it also turns out to be good for business.

Located in far-away Mustamäe, Umami is named after that Japanese word which means something a little “more than savory.” And you’ll find Umami’s rich and tasty offerings being served at one of the few stand-alone houses which still survives out in that neighborhood. This gray-and-white two-story house-restaurant is surrounded by busy roads at the edge of a pine forest. Fortunately, the location comes complete with great garden – most of it taken up by an old apple orchard – where you can sit outside whenever the weather happens to be nice enough. As one might hope from such a lovely oasis located amidst Mustamäe’s repetitive Soviet apartment blocks and identical Estonian strip malls, the focus here is on fresh and seasonal food with an Asian accent. Umami is also about having fun – as demonstrated by the quirky art on its walls. Moreover, this family-friendly restaurant welcomes younger guests by providing them with play-areas both outside and indoors. Even the kids’ menu looks tempting ….

As the best place to eat out in Mustamäe, Umami is a popular destination – especially at mid-day when Tallinn’s white-collar workers flock there for the daily lunch-time special. Umami’s päeva praad is such a hit that you may not get into the restaurant unless you have a lunch-time reservation. However, Umami’s friendly wait staff might still manage to squeeze you in – especially if you’re OK with sitting upstairs in the private dining room which becomes a communal table during the lunch-time rush. The most popular day of the week to visit Umami tends to be Friday when they offer up their weekly open-face “burger with fries.” Now this is a “burger” in the loosely defined sense of that word as only rarely is it made from beef. But regardless of whether the kitchen is serving up fried chicken or confit duck or lamb or anything else on a bun, people still arrive in numbers as they know that they’re in for a treat. Umami’s päeva praad always represents the best that the restaurant has to offer.

Thursday, as most Estonians will tell you, is kalapäev (fish day). Umami upholds this tradition by serving up a fish dish every Thursday prepared in an ever-changing number of different ways. As I don’t want to mess with Umami’s wonderful Burger Fridays, I almost hesitate to point out that Fish Thursdays is actually a Soviet-era legacy. Friday, after all, is the real Fish Day – both words even start with an “F” to prove it! Across the West, many Christian countries – especially Catholic ones – still follow the tradition of eating fish on Fridays to honor Jesus’ sacrifice of his body (his flesh) on Good Friday. The Soviets, of course, wanted to eliminate all religious traditions and so shifted Fish Day from Friday to Thursday. Given that Estonia is often described as one of the least religious countries in the world, no one here seems to be in any hurry to move kalapäev back to the day where it belongs. Oh, well.

From Monday to Wednesday, Umami’s lunch-time specials follow no easily discernible pattern as the kitchen experiments with new ingredients – or riffs on items from their regular a la carte menu in new and innovative ways. Chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, and beef will all make rotating appearances – along with organ meats and full-on vegetarian specials. As for cooking techniques, well, the daily special can be oven baked, grilled, stewed, poached, deep fried or whatever strikes the kitchen’s fancy. Umami fans know that they need to check out their favorite restaurant’s ever-changing lunch-time menu on FaceBook to see what is being offered on any given day along with descriptions of accompanying sides or sauces.

Whatever you do, don’t go to Umami expecting to be served straight-up Estonian food. Instead, Umami offers what you might call Estonian-inspired Asian fusion. Although I’m not usually a fan of Asian fusion – most Estonian attempts that I’ve tried result in far too much culinary confusion, Umami also proves to be the exception to this rule. My theory for this is that Umami’s päeva praad functions as a kind of lunch-time “lab” where the chefs combine and recombine their ingredients until they get things down right. Once they’ve gotten all the different ingredients to taste exactly the way they want them to together, then that dish might end up on the regular menu.

Each time I meet someone who lives out in Mustamäe, I ask them what there is to see and do in their neighborhood – in other words, why should I go out there again? Although I’m still waiting to hear a good answer, I’ve found at least one of my own. Umami, after all, gives you a great reason to visit Mustamäe in order to try their päeva praad at lunch or to order from their full menu on evenings or weekends. So, when you finally make it out to there, try to get a seat near Umami’s completely open kitchen – an entire wall is missing with no counter or barrier added to take its place – to watch the restaurant’s impressive crew at work. This openness also makes it easy for one of the cooks to comes out, serve your food, and explain what it is you’re eating. It’s small touches like this which make Umami’s food so accessible. The restaurant has also been known to experiment with various dining formats from Sunday Brunch to Blind Dinners when you eat in complete darkness and try to figure out what’s on your plate.

In case you didn’t already know, Umami was created by Kristjan Peäske and Janno Leppik – the same culinary duo behind my favorite Estonian restaurant, Leib. Umami, however, is not Leib’s daughter or clone. Instead, Umami has become its own thing – or a fully-fledged sibling. Its separate personality and identity makes it possible for Umami to flourish without any noticeable drop in quality back at Leib. Umami is proof that when properly managed and staffed by a well-trained crew, a second restaurant – even with a very different concept – can work just as well as the first one. And even if it might require a little effort to get out to Kadaka tee 141, Umami’s twin culinary missions – saving the päeva praad from itself while bringing savory food to one of Tallinn’s outlying districts – are ones that everyone should support.

 

Image: An oasis on a black field – or an Eye of Óðinn pot from Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

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