Tokyo is a tough place to open any business, especially your first restaurant. Along with kitchen skills and front-of-house nous, you need the right location, good connections and a strong underlying raison d’etre. A catchy name and some funky background music can’t hurt either, as the folks at Umbilical have clearly realized.
This friendly, mellow modern bistro in Sangenjaya, now just over a year old, has managed to carve out a distinctive niche for itself. It certainly stands out among the more raucous izakaya taverns and ramshackle drinking holes that still line the backstreets of this traditional nightlife area.
That’s not because of the eye-catching turquoise paint job across the front. In fact, once you cross the threshold you’ll find it has a calm, wood-clad demeanor that almost feels too classy for this no-frills neck of the woods. The same could be said for the cooking of Umbilical’s cheerful young chef, Takahiro Ono.
Once you’re seated and have conferred on what you’re drinking with floor manager Shun Takahashi — he’s the other partner in the enterprise — you will be served an amuse worthy of many a grander restaurant. Right now it’s a savory sweet-corn ice cream with powdered coconut cream, as refreshing as it is sophisticated.
For starters, look no further than Ono’s signature seafood plate. Every day he puts together four choices that can be ordered separately or as a mix of three. Recent options have included octopus with shiro-uri (savory white melon); swordfish “prosciutto” with cubes of mango; and katsuo (skipjack) carpaccio anointed with an excellent sweet-sour strawberry sauce.
Next, cast your eye down the day’s specials. If you’re in luck, Ono will also be serving his ayu (sweetfish) confit. Prepared whole — as is customary, you eat it from head to tail, bones, fins and all — the fish comes with sauces of kiwi and passion fruit to offset the bitterness of the innards.
But the dish not to miss is Ono’s sardine and potato pie. It sounds prosaic but turns out to be as refined and accomplished as a proper pithivier pie. The lovely pale green sauce that accompanies it is made with spinach and vermouth.
One more mention: The coriander leaf salad is not only dusted with shavings of Comte cheese, it has fresh Yamagata cherries mixed in. It’s a masterful combination.
To close the meal, order the beet and mimolette cheese risotto. And keep your sunglasses ready for when it hits the table. The scarlet rice, already rich and cheesy, is scattered with yellow chrysanthemum petals along with more of the mimolette.
Ono was previously sous-chef at the excellent natural wine-specialist restaurant Gris in Yoyogi Uehara. Takahashi, too, has been accruing a deep training in natural wines since arriving in Tokyo. The two have known each other from when they were at high school in Iwate, and Umbilical is the culmination of a long-held plan.
Hence the name they’ve chosen for their restaurant. It’s a statement celebrating that strong shared connection with their home prefecture, its soil and sea — and at the same time with their customers.
A la carte (figure around ¥3,500 plus wine); smoking permitted after 10 p.m.; Japanese menu; some English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.