This past Wednesday we had a rare night away from our parental duties, so Cynaburst and I decided to try the new tofu specialty house, Ume no Hana in Beverly Hills. We had watched this elegant-looking restaurants construction in the new multistory shopping/parking complex that runs between Beverly and Canon; and wed read the fine 10/14/2004 opening week review from BombayUpWithaTwist.
Then, on Wednesday morning I opened the Times to find S. Irene Virbilas long and very positive review. I was aghast that the place might find itself hopelessly crowded that night, and we debated heading out for some sushi instead, but I went ahead and called and was assured that they would have plenty of room.
No kidding. This place is HUGE, and was pretty darn empty all night.
They told us they can seat 130 in 3 dining rooms plus a tatami room and a bar, and there couldnt have been more than 30 diners in the restaurant all night. The rooms are attractive, if a bitt stark. Service operated at a very high standard of attentiveness. There seemed to be more staff than clientele (including one woman whose job seemed to be to stand next to the bathroom door all night). The manager said they had gotten lots of calls since SIrenes review and were anticipating an upswing in volume. But imagine what the weekly nut for this place must bewill they make it?
We opted for the second kaiseki menu, $54/person. SIrenes review mentioned that the most expensive menus have too much food. Arguably, so does this one. Lots and lots of food. It just kept coming, one dainty white dish of soybean derivatives after another.
We enjoyed everything, but there came a point (somewhere between the chawan mushi and the fresh tofu cooking at the table) where, suddenly, my digestive system registered that the whole meal really was going to be ALL tofu, and it all was starting to taste pretty much the the same, and the tofu was starting to climb up to my eyeballs. (This stuff expands in the stomach, right?)
Interestingly, it was at just this point that they presented the fresh-cooked tofu with mabo sauce. Sherry V, had raved about this in her Times review, and I had a similar reaction, I craved it, ate every spoonful I could get my hands on--not because I think., in retrospect, that it was really all that great (basically, its mild pork chili con carne, and Cynaburst didnt actually care for it very much) but because it was so different from all the soybean-and-soysauce-and vegetal-matter dishes otherwise populating our table. (The other sauce that came with this dish was very traditional and fit right into the glut of samey dishes.)
But there were plenty of things we did like a lot: the shiu mai which had a simultaneously subtle and intense flavor of chicken; the yuba sheets swimming in soy milk in a wooden bucket; a little palate-cleansing cup of sweet, indefinable wasabi sorbet; the sizzling-platter tofu steak (surprising, since its one of the last dishes and we were really getting full, but the sauce and texture of this one were quite addictive). And we both liked the yuba-cream cheese-raisin roll that came as part of the final course, a small platter of sushi, and which SIrene dissed in her Times reviewwe both thought it was as a rather nice dessert while fitting into the tofu/yuba theme.
All in all we did like this place, and wed go back, but next time we might try to pace ourselves a little bit more, and I think we might go for the basic, traditional menu described in BombayUpWithaTwists review.
(That didnt stop us from splitting one dessert order of anmitsu with a bit of green tea soy-ice-cream; next time I might try the black sesame flavor.)
Its not cheap, and the drinks are quite pricey ($25 for the cheapest bottle of sake, $12 per special cocktail) but overall its not that expensive compared to sushi, or given the very high level of service.
Plus, the imported automatic toilets alone are worth the price of admission--although I have to say that the vaunted hands-free wash-and-dry technology worked less, er, effectively than I would have hoped.
They have a $100/person special dinner, which has to be ordered in advance. The details are not specified on the menu but (according to our charming waitress) it includes crab legs, Kobe steak, etc. Sounds like too much to me, but maybe someone else will take a shot.
Coda: Still recovering from this tofu surfeit, on Thursday afternoon, I decided to pick up a couple of salad combos from Clementine for a light dinner. Without thinking about it, I included one of our usual favorites there, the edamame with salmon, and when Cynaburst came home she looked in the refrigerator and exclaimed with a certain air of exhaustion: Soybeans! I havent seen any of those in a while! But we still ate them allits a great dish. Guess there are still some uses for the ol bean yet.
Heres a link to the English-language website of the Japanese Umenohana chain, which does NOT list the Beverly Hills location (there is a press release about it on the Japanese-language site), but does have a couple of sample Japanese menus (which are different in some respects from what you get here).
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