Restaurant Review

Umeya

Umeya in Cresskill has one of the most devoted cast of regulars, including many chefs. The reason is simple: extraordinary sushi, much of it from Japan.

Among Umeya’s passionate regulars are several North Jersey chefs and restaurateurs, including John Piliouras, formerly of Orama in Edgewater; Benito Rivero of Casual Cabana Café in Hackensack and New Milford; and Michael Elias of Ice Cream by Mike in Hackensack. Elias was dining at the bar on both my visits.

“I’m here at least once a week,” he said.

I soon came to understand his devotion. It started with one bite of blissfully creamy scallop sushi, cut to resemble a chrysanthemum flower and topped with orange tobiko roe. Impeccable freshness is the mark of great sushi; many devotees judge a sushiya (the Japanese term for a sushi restaurant) by the freshness of the uni, or sea urchin. I’ve never had fresher uni—or any sushi and sashimi—than at Umeya, even on my two visits to Japan.

If spaces are open at the six-seat sushi bar, grab them. You’ll marvel at the knife skills of co-owners Kenji Umeda and his wife, Masako, whom he trained (and who created the flowered scallop). Neither speaks much English, so you order through the servers. Pointing is allowed.

“We constantly get Japanese fish by air from Kyushu and sometimes from the Tsukiji market in Tokyo,” says the Umedas’ daughter, Maya, 27, who translates for her parents and helps manage the business. “We get fish less known in America, like renkodai [red sea bream], hagi [triggerfish], kawahagi [thread-sail filefish] and katsuo [skipjack tuna], all seasonal.”

Sushi rice is an art in itself, and Umeya’s is exemplary: creamy, with subtle flavors of sea salt and house-made rice wine vinegar. Umeya also makes its own wasabi from Japanese wasabi powder and fresh imported wasabi root, not the typical workaround of horseradish, mustard and green food coloring.

Umeya’s sushi is gracefully arranged on ceramic plates handcrafted in Japan. The miso soup—based on a dashi broth made daily with kombu seaweed, bonito flakes and sun-dried Japanese iwashi anchovies—has a beguiling smoky flavor.

“Even Japanese people are forgetting what real sushi is, thanks to kaiten-zushi [conveyor-belt sushi],” Umeda told me through Maya. You won’t find rolls laden with mango, jalapeño or cream cheese here. Even spicy mayo, which originated in Japan, is used with restraint.

Umeda, born in central Japan in 1958, began training as a sushi chef in his teens. By 22, he was working at Hatsuhana in Tokyo. A year later, in 1981, he was sent to Hatsuhana in Manhattan. In 1983, said Maya, he was in charge of sushi and sashimi when New York Times reviewer Mimi Sheraton gave Hatsuhana four stars.

Umeda married Masako Umeyama, the Tokyo-born manager of Dojo in Greenwich Village. In 1991, they opened a sushi catering kitchen in Cresskill. In ’96, they opened Umeya, the restaurant, in the same building and eventually phased out catering. Ume, as in the names Umeda and Umeyama, means “plum.” Umeya, then, is “the house of the plum”; its logo is the plum flower, a Japananese harbinger of spring.

Unlike sushiyas in Japan, Umeya serves cooked foods. The menu is long, with numerous standouts. The organic agedashi tofu, delicately fried in soy oil, benefits from the same dashi as the miso soup. Equally delectable are the whole oysters fried in a panko and egg batter. (Squid teriyaki cooked on the grill, however, was tough.) Best was broiled salmon skin with bits of flesh on it. The skin is crisped on a grill for about five minutes. A few seconds under a torch caramelizes the nubbins of flesh. The crunchy, salty, rich result is dazzling.

Don’t expect to be embraced on your first or second visit—that’s the one knock on Umeya. “Over 70 percent of our diners are regulars,” Maya told me. As a newbie, I felt like I had crashed a private club. Breaking through probably takes several visits. Is it worth it? As Michael Elias of Ice Cream by Mike told me, “My foodie quest for ultimate Japanese ended here.”

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Japanese - Sushi
  • Price Range:
    Moderate
  • Price Details:
    Appetizers, $4.50-$15; non-seafood entrées, $15.75-$28; complete seafood dinners, $31-$32; sushi assortments, $17.75-$38; sushi (per piece), $2-$4.50; rolls, $3-$14; desserts, $4.
  • Ambience:
    Sushi shrine with carved wood bar and seafoam-green walls.
  • Service:
    Until they get to know you, can be impersonal and slow.
  • Wine list:
    Sake-centric; some wine and beer.

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