The first thing to know about Umami Global Bistro is that it is not, as we originally imagined, a sushi restaurant. The word "umami," defined as the savory fifth taste, is borrowed from the Japanese, and in the U.S. it's still frequently associated with Japanese cuisine.
At Umami, which opened in Catonsville in 2011, there's plenty of excellent savory flavor, but the food is Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian, not Japanese. Regardless of its national roots, Umami delivers an enjoyable, casual and friendly experience.
Scene & Decor
When we arrived, around 6:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, Umami's two outdoor tables were occupied and the small dining room was mostly full.
The restaurant is warm and neatly organized. The walls are covered with photographs and paintings by local artists, and — to head off any questions — a definition of "umami" is stenciled on the back wall.
We placed our orders at the small back counter, appreciating that the man behind the register let us wait until after our meal to pay so we could mull over the dessert options after, not before, tackling our entrees.
The Umami sampler for two ($30) provided us with a quick tour through the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern aspects of the menu, starting with simple salads ($3 extra) and a generous appetizer platter.
Crisp and fresh, the salads included lettuce, tomato and chunks of cucumber tossed with an acidic, herb-flecked vinaigrette.
The large platter included scoops of baba ghanoush and hummus, several crispy falafel, a handful of rice-stuffed grape leaves, a small pot of tzatziki and warm triangles of naan for dipping.
We liked everything on the plate. The baba ghanoush was pleasantly smoky, the hummus had a garlicky bite and the grape leaves were tangy with lemon. The small spheres of falafel were our favorite, seasoned nicely and cooked until their outer shells were irresistibly crunchy.
The sampler platter also includes basmati rice and a choice of two kebabs — we opted for one chicken and one lamb and added a third, beef ($8 extra).
Though none of the kebabs were quite as impressive as the terrific falafel, all were seasoned nicely and very likable, especially when dragged through Umami's tangy tzatziki. The rice, though not terrible, was on the dry side.
Umami's menu meanders from the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern region to India. The restaurant's version of chicken tikka masala ($13), the tomato-based British-Indian concoction, was spicy and chunky, less creamy and more tangy than many versions. Served with salad, rice and naan, it was filling.
Umami does not serve alcohol, but it does allow BYOB with no corkage fee.
When we ordered a thick slice of chocolate mousse cake ($4), we were warned it wasn't gluten-free. That didn't matter to us, but since we also ordered a gluten-free vegan cupcake ($3.50), we appreciated the caution.
The chocolate cake was dense and cold, intense but likable. Gluten-free vegan cupcakes present a challenge to bakers, but Umami's mango-flecked cupcake of the day, topped with mango cream frosting, was a good example of the genre. The cake was dense, like a muffin, but both cake and frosting were pleasantly sweet.
Though orders are placed at Umami's back counter, the restaurant does have table service. Both the man behind the counter and our waitress were friendly and our food arrived at an appropriate pace.
There's a lot to love about Umami's food and staff, and our only real complaint didn't have a thing to do with either: it was about the plates.
Though the salads that came with the sampler arrived on individual plates, the appetizer platter and kebabs were on shared dishes. That makes sense, but in addition to the community platters we should have been given plates of our own.
Without individual plates directly in front of us, we managed to make a huge mess on the table. When the food is as full as flavor as Umami's, we hated to miss a bite.