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Japanese restaurant opens in East End

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Anna Wang, Andy Xie and Doreen Liu are serving fusion Japanese food New York City style at Umami, a sushi and hibachi grill that opened Monday on Charleston's East End. The restaurant abuts Main Kwong on Washington Street East, where their good friend Carina Kwok has been serving Chinese food for 20 years.

They left their Japanese restaurant in Manhattan to open a place in Charleston to live in a family-friendly community with a more relaxed lifestyle. Xie and Liu have two young children who are already enrolled in their neighborhood school.

The name "Umami" is a Japanese term that refers to savory, and is considered the fifth sense of taste.

Umami's menu includes 100 dishes, 50 sushi roll combinations and 20 kinds of sashimi. Many of the rolls do not contain raw seafood, for customers who shy away from raw dishes. All rolls and sushi without raw seafood or vegetarian varieties are noted on the menu.

For the record, ingredients rolled in sheets or black nori and cut into slices are maki, or rolls, and are probably the most recognizable form of what many people consider sushi. The term sushi actually refers to the sweet vinegared rice that is served in a mound under raw fish. That entree is commonly called sushi. Sashimi is raw fish alone.

Special rolls, developed by in-house sushi chef include the Sexy Lady Roll of hot pepper tuna and avocado, spicy salmon and crunch, Black Dragon Roll of smoked salmon, eel, avocado and roe and the Casino Roll, which sushi chef Jason Chong thinks will be especially popular. It contains tempura shrimp, spicy shrimp, roe and crunch.

"In New York, customers liked to try a lot of different foods. We hope that people here will like to try something new," said Liu.

The most popular items will probably be teriyaki entrees and Unagi Don, or broiled eel, served over sushi rice predicted Eddie Kwok, Carina's son, who stopped by the restaurant on a break from college.

Umami offers a unique presentation of some lunch specials in bento boxes, or square trays divided into five compartments. Each holds either a teriyaki or tempura entree, steamed rice, California roll, soup or salad and seasonings.

Hibachi food will be served in the tables in the dining room, but prepared in the adjoining grill room, for the benefit of patrons who like the taste of Hibachi food, but don't enjoy tableside preparation. Seats are also available around the grill where customers can watch the action through a glass barrier.

Xie puts on a quite a show as he deftly slices, dices and flips vegetables and meats and seafood and fires the grill with the skill of a practiced Hibachi chef. Steam rises from the quickly prepared food.

"We try to be very healthy. Everything is fresh," said Carina Kwok, who owns the East End building containing the restaurants. "We don't use a lot of butter or oil. The hot grill sears the food."

Hibachi grill entrees include chicken, shrimp, steak, scallops, salmon, filet mignon, lobster or vegetables separate or in combination, all served with the requisite grilled vegetables, rice, soup and salad. Because they aren't seated at tableside grills, patrons will have two jumbo shrimp served on their plates, not tossed toward their mouths, as is the hibachi grill custom.

"We thought we'd do something different. The downtown Charleston lunch crowd is pretty fast-paced. We can get them in and out quickly, if that's what they want," said Eddie Kwok about the managers' decision to forgo time-consuming hibachi preparation performances.

Even before the grills were heated for the first time, neighborhood planners welcomed the owners to the area, pleased at the extensive renovations and facelift given the unsightly building that once housed Trading Post pawnshop, but has been vacant for five years. Carina Kwok is also renovating the space on the other side of Main Kwong, where she plans to open a frozen yogurt shop in February.

"It was an eyesore. We're next door, so we naturally wanted the neighborhood to look better," said Eddie Kwok. Nearby businesses such as the Moses Cadillac, Buick and GMC dealership across the street have also invested in noteworthy renovations. "We're giving back to the community."

Carina Kwok's father, Yuen Cheung, designed the dining room layout and Oriental decor. Cheung designed and operated Chinese restaurants in New York and New Jersey, and helped Carina open and initially run Main Kwong. He took on this design project despite his recent retirement. Cheung visited similar restaurants in big cities for design ideas to incorporate in his plan.

The fresh look is appropriate for the area's latest addition to ethnic dining options.

"Umami is bringing something new to the East End and is committed to bringing more dining options to the East End," Carina Kwok said. "We are going to be meticulous about freshness and innovative food choices alongside a pleasant dining experience."

The owners are in the process of securing a beer and wine license. Parking space is available behind the restaurant. Military personnel and college students receive a 10 percent discount with ID. Prices range from $6 to $11 for lunch and from $12 to $20 for regular dinner entrees. Maki, sashimi and sushi range from $5 to $15.

Umami Sushi and Hibachi Grill, 1401 Washington St. E., is open from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and from 4 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Call 304-343-8989.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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