I used to live in Harborne. Lovely place, polite and well mannered, with the whiff of affluence in the air. It’s middle-class and proud; gents wear polo shirts with upturned collars all year round, occasionally pulling over a John Smedley knitwear when the wind outside Waitrose turns chilly. Ladies sport designer handbags, often with designer pups perched inside. Its a great place to live – home to the best pub in Birmingham, The Plough, and with far greater eating options than Moseley, its slightly rougher sibling which I now call home. I miss it there. What I don’t miss is the Indian food. I love a curry and honestly, Harborne does the food of the subcontinent as well as it does parking. We lived across the road from one that tried to kill me twice, with others not fairing much better. So with the recent revelation that Harborne now has a restaurant that does Indian cooking as well, no one was more shocked than I.
First, let me address the name. Umami is a term Japanese in nature, the so-called fifth taste sensation of savoury that they claim to have discovered in recent times. The reality is that savoury has been a recognised flavour profile for hundreds of years, Escoffier noting a couple of hundred years back that it if it is brown it will taste good. I digress, but still, naming an Indian restaurant after a Japanese term for a flavour not prominently found in the food of the sub-continent is curious at best.
And then the food happens. Three fat scallops, seared to medium rare, in a thick puddle of a tomato gravy flavoured with black peppercorns. It was reminiscent of a dish I had in Goa, though this has more depth and clarity to the sauce without losing the essence of the shellfish. At £7 its hard to see where the restaurants profit margins are, but we care little as we chase the last of the sauce around the plate. Shekh Kebabs and Somasa are on more familiar territory, though each are a delight. The lamb kebabs are fragrant with cinnamon which needs the salad for respite, and the somosa transcended by a warm chutney underneath full of garlic and chilli heat.
Mains are split in to more traditional curries and the chefs signature dishes, seemingly more expensive for bearing his expertise. We try two curries, both with chicken of obvious quality. We could smell the chettinad with it’s unmistakable aroma of coriander seeds as it made its way through the narrow dining room to our table, the multifaceted sauce rich with curry leaf and fiery heat. Much calmer was their take on tikka masala, equally big on flavour with the smooth gravy, tempered and thickened by yogurt. The chunks of chicken meat as tender as you could wish for.
A monkfish main from the chef’s signature dishes may seem steep at £18.00 but it wins the night hands down. The fish is dusted in a rich spice blend and cooked just through so it avoids any chewiness. The medallions sit on a sauce of chilli and garlic that demands you sit up and pay attention. Like me, its refined in appearance and extremely naughty in nature. Two seabass fillets are nestled on a spiced mushroom ragu, dotted with peas and bound with a tomato chutney full of warming freshness. If they have one dish that truly captures the savoury of umami, this is it. We share supple naan breads and rice that has been cooked so that each grain is distinct. Not a scrap is left as they clear up our table.
Look, its not perfect. They like cress as a decoration a little too much and there are as many managers as there are waiters, with more of the latter possibly rectifying the wait between dishes on the same courses. Drinks take a while to arrive and when they do the cocktails require work, veering between overly sweet and too boozy. But if I want cocktails I’ll go to a cocktail bar and the food, Oh My, the food is so Good. A bill, amended to remove a glass of champagne that arrived late, hits just over forty pound a head with a couple of drinks each. A cheaper meal could be had on much of Harborne High St, indeed at most of the cities Indian restaurants, but this is food of ambition and quality. I have done the spectrum of Indian food in Birmingham, from the cheap to the costliest, but if you ask me which one is best I’d be hard pushed to suggest anywhere other than Umami.