By Matthew Hacke | Interview by Andrea Bosco Stehle | Photographs by Michael Fornataro
Stepping through the doors of Umami in Lawrenceville, you are guided to your seats by the light of red paper lanterns covered with Japanese characters. The new restaurant — located above Round Corner Cantina — offers Japanese fare in a sleek and intimate space. Roger Li, the owner and executive chef at Umami, brings both an impressive resume and flavorful creations to the dinner table. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Li’s work has primarily been in Japanese restaurants — including the renowned Morimoto. “My background came from growing up in my parents’ restaurant back in Philadelphia,” Li says. “I had hands-on training after I did my homework every night. Ever since, all I’ve wanted to do was to cook and bring people together with food.” And he’s successfully done just that.
After his move across the state to Pittsburgh, Li soon found a following in the expanding restaurant scene. “My first restaurant was New Moon in the North Shore. I also ran Tamari and Tamari North in Lawrenceville and Warrendale,” he says. Ten years after his move to the Burgh, Li knew that it was time to branch out on his own. What he didn’t know was that a trip to Japan would inspire his next endeavor.
Li came up with the concept of Umami, which means “pleasant, savory taste,” immediately following his trip out East. “After going to Japan and seeing some izakaya and sake bars, I fell in love with the idea of bringing them to Pittsburgh,” Li says. “I love to cook Japanese food and I wanted to introduce an izakaya to the tremendous food scene here.” Izakaya is a type of Japanese gastropub — equivalent to an Irish pub or American saloon in the states. Having a gut feeling that the Steel City would be extremely receptive to such a concept, Li went ahead and began looking for spaces.
Scouring the area for the perfect place to open the restaurant, Lawrenceville was an easy choice for Li, especially after viewing a space on the third floor of the building that also houses Round Corner Cantina. “When I first saw this space, I thought it would be one-of-a-kind in Pittsburgh,” he says. “The windows surrounding the main dining room and being on the third floor keep it hidden enough that anticipation grows as you walk up the stairs waiting to see what will be next.” His choice to open shop here was also made easier by the fact that he partnered with his friend, Derek Brunell of Round Corner Cantina, on the restaurant. “Derek had great ideas and input into making Umami a hip, cool space, so it was the perfect fit.”
The dynamic space also comes with a dynamic menu — one that Li is excited to share with Pittsburgh foodies — offering everything from Japanese street food to sushi. “Our robatayaki — food on skewers grilled over hot, binchotan charcoal — are a must-have,” Li says. “Our sushi is one of the most popular items from the kitchen as well, along with takoyaki — grilled octopus balls — and Yaki udon — Japanese noodles,” Li continues. When asked about his favorite dish, Li instantly chose a meal perfect for the colder months ahead. “My favorite item on my menu would have to be the Chawanmushi with Kabocha — steamed savory egg custard — full of umami, perfect for a cold winter night,” Li exclaims. The drinks menu is just as deliciously intriguing and plentiful as the food menu. “From the bar, the Tickle ‘n Giggle — topped with pop rocks, Panda Panda Panda — our take on a tiki cocktail, and Godzilla tears — our take on a spicy margarita — are some of my favorite and our most popular cocktails. Our sake list and Japanese whiskey are also some of the best in the city,” he adds.
When it comes to finding inspiration for his creative masterpieces, Li doesn’t have to look very far. “My inspiration comes from my 13-month-old son, Dylan,” Li says. “Watching him eat something new for the first time and the excitement that he shows makes me want to create exceptional food even more,” Li says with a smile. “Watching my guests leave with joy and satisfaction also inspires me and makes me love my job even more.”
Looking ahead, Li is ecstatic about more people coming through the doors of Umami and having a dining experience like they’ve never had before. “Bringing the first izakaya to Pittsburgh has been fun and exciting,” says Li. “Showing diners something different and educating my guests on the true flavors of Japanese street food is absolutely awesome.”
Umami, 202 38th St., 3rd Floor, Lawrenceville. 412.224.2354. umamipgh.com.