THE DISH: UMAO
UMAO//11 Konnogvardeisky Boulevard//Tel. 642 9000//Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.//Menu in Russian only//Dinner for two with alcohol 2,720 rubles ($90)
Published: February 13, 2013 (Issue # 1746)
The latest gem on the city’s Pan-Asian dining scene is the tiny UMAO, hidden away on Konnogvardeisky Boulevard behind the Manezh Central Exhibition Hall, and opposite the row of expensive eateries such as Stroganoff Steak House that lines the other side of the boulevard.
UMAO is a model of simplicity — think plain cream-colored walls and wooden tables — and contemporary Asian chic, with its brown paper placemats, transparent plastic chairs, glass lampshades, and branches and fairy lights adorning the capacious windowsills.
With its young staff, laid-back, welcoming atmosphere and chilled music, the cafe makes a great place to enjoy a Tsingtao beer (170 rubles or $5.70 for half a liter) and a plate of ferociously hot, tangy vegetable spring rolls (a bargain at 120 rubles, or $4) while catching up with friends.
Despite the café’s small size, solitary diners wolfing down fresh, firm, steaming dim sum with chicken and shitake mushrooms (200 rubles, $6.70) on their lunch break from work will also feel at home, and in the absence of any likeminded coworkers, can entertain themselves by flicking through one of the numerous Sobaka.ru and TimeOut magazines available.
If the idea of trawling through pages of generously Photoshopped local D-list celebs is enough to put you off your meal, fear not: The large windows offer a more romantic view of the snowy boulevard outside, which makes the perfect setting in which to warm up with a bowl of piping hot cream of spinach soup (170 rubles, $5.70). If the rich and salty dish isn’t enough on its own to thaw you through, then the single innocuous-looking red chili pepper lurking at the bottom of the bowl certainly will be.
Sweet and sour soup with salmon (180 rubles, $6) was just pleasantly spicy, and, like everything else at UMAO, cholesterol-inflatingly salty, seemingly due to the chef’s predilection for soy sauce. The seaweed flavor and texture contrasted nicely with the superbly firm pieces of salmon, cooked to perfection.
The sauces at UMAO also tend to be soy-based and salty, and diners would be well advised to go easy with them to avoid swamping the taste and texture of the dishes themselves. For example, it would be a shame to doctor the crunchy Gorengan chicken (180 rubles, $6), deep-fried in batter yet laudably grease-free, with anything other than the delectable mayonnaise-based concoction with which it was served.
The portions here are not enormous, but offer excellent value for the reasonable prices: UMAO is drastically cheaper than its nearest rival in terms of cuisine and atmosphere, the ever-popular King Pong. A portion of chicken teriyaki noodles (220 rubles, $7.30), for example, was generous enough, and did not fall into the usual trap of being doused in a greasy sauce. At this stage, only the most expert chopstick-users are likely to manage to devour the firm, elusive noodles with any grace with the chopsticks provided on each table. Others may, in the interests of table etiquette, have to admit defeat and ask the unfailingly friendly wait staff for a fork.
UMAO, the waitress laughingly confided, is in fact a random combination of letters that was chosen as the restaurant’s name “because it sounded Asian.” The food, however, seemed at least a little more authentic, and certainly the eatery already seems to have a small yet dedicated — and rapidly growing — following.
And the best news? From March, UMAO is set to start offering home (or office) delivery.