Now that winter has truly (and bitterly) arrived in southern Wisconsin, our appetites turn to foods that are warm and comforting.
Comfort food is a broad category, and you might not think of Japanese cuisine in relation to it. But a recent meal at Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar on Williamson Street certainly satisfied the craving.
The restaurant opened about seven years ago in a historic bungalow that was formerly an 1880s blacksmith shop. Its owners transformed the building into a streamlined bar and dining room featuring textured white walls and dark wood banquettes with minimal décor. The owners did such a fine job of renovating the building they received an award from the Madison Trust for Historic Preservation.
Architecture aside, the focus here is on pork buns, dumplings and ramen with house-made noodles in a pork-centric menu. The restaurant excels at combining simple, flavorful ingredients that complement each other.
Umami’s ramen—essentially a meal in a bowl—comes in five varieties. In addition to the signature tonkotsu ramen (with its pork-based broth), the menu offers vegan and vegetarian options (both with a seaweed and mushroom broth), shoyu chicken ramen, and miso chicken ramen. All broths and noodles are made in-house and are fresh and artfully presented.
The restaurant’s dumplings are delicious ($6 for a small order of six; $8 for an order of nine), and are served with a choice of sauces: soy vinegar, sweet or spicy sauce. The kitchen offers four varieties: the classic pork and chive with ginger; shrimp and pork with shiitake mushrooms; chicken and shiitake mushrooms with scallion, carrot and ginger; and vegan, with smoked tofu, bok choy and shiitakes.
An order of six was loaded with flavor and ideal for two diners to share.
The pork buns ($7 for two) feature juicy pieces of Berkshire pork belly with pickled vegetables in a homemade hoisin sauce, all stuffed inside a fluffy steamed gwa pao bun (Taiwanese clamshell style). If you prefer spicy over sweet, try the ones filled with Korean beef. Umami also offers vegetarian and vegan buns that replace the meat with fried tofu.
In addition to buns, dumplings and ramen, the menu includes a list of appetizers, salads and desserts.
An excellent mushroom-arugula salad ($5 for a small, $8 for large) combines shiitake, baby portabello, and button mushrooms with red onions, cucumber and cherry tomatoes with sesame soy dressing. It’s a terrific blend of flavors and textures, and the large was more than enough for two to share.
A server mentioned the kitchen’s buns are the most popular item on Umami’s small menu. It’s easy to see why: They are filling, affordable and, like everything else on the menu, very tasty. The pork buns feature oven-roasted, house-cured pork belly with pickled cucumbers, scallions and a hoisin sauce that is sweet but not cloying.
For us, especially at this time of the year, Umami’s ramen is the big draw. Served in a beautiful ceramic artisan bowl, this kitchen’s rendition is an elegant take on what can be a very simple dish. The miso ramen ($11) starts with miso chicken broth and then throws in noodles, egg, tender strips of marinated chicken, bamboo shoots, seaweed, bean sprouts and green onions. Diners dress it up with their choice of additional toppings (pork belly, butter corn or smoked tofu, among others) to get a complex ramen featuring a host of harmonious flavors.
Just as good is the tonkotsu ramen ($12), which comes with slices of braised pork, marinated bamboo shoots, nori (seaweed) and green onions. The vegetarian ramen ($11) skips the pork and combines konbu (seaweed) and mushroom broth with fresh noodles topped with smoked tofu, shiitake mushrooms, marinated bamboo shoots, nori and bean sprouts.
The kitchen puts out some fine desserts as well. A companion loved the matcha green tea crème brulée ($6), which featured a crispy surface and a creamy interior. It also offers an ice cream sandwich with freshly baked cookies ($5) and mochi ice cream ($5).
Service on the night of our visit was very good, and we found the restaurant offers a relaxing space with tasty and affordable food. With one of the nicer patios on Willy Street, and some of the best comfort food in town, I would recommend it any time of the year.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.