It’s a Thursday evening well into the first semester of the school year, and Umi Nom is half-empty. Which is a shame, since nearly everything I’ve tasted there has been superb. The restaurant is berthed on Myrtle Avenue on the eastern edge of the Pratt campus, in a Sargasso Sea of a neighborhood between Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant—where trash often clogs the gutters and the nearest liquor store (three blocks east near Franklin Avenue) defends its booze with Plexiglas. You have to purchase your wine via a little sliding box, which I did—a bargain bottle of Chianti for $10. Despite a moniker meaning “Drink” in Tagalog, Umi Nom is still BYOB after being open 15 months. Don’t hold your breath that the liquor license will ever arrive. In the meantime, the place is struggling along without it.
The joint occupies a narrow storefront with a refreshingly plain, bare-brick interior and lots of dark polished woods. Lighting is provided by a series of nifty fixtures implanted in bamboo logs. Umi Nom is an offshoot of the Lower East Side’s Kuma Inn, where a playful take on Philippine food forms the centerpiece of a pan-Asian menu in tapas-size portions. The chef, King Phojanakong, is the American-born child of Philippine and Thai parents, and his résumé includes Bouley and other high-end refectories. Filipino fare has been the hardest of Southeast Asian cuisines to popularize, since its wild diversity of influences (Spanish, Chinese, Polynesian, and American) and startling combinations of ingredients (white vinegar, fish sauce, and pig blood, for example) resist adaptation.
Umi Nom sails on the same tack as Kuma Inn, mixing its Philippine food with dishes that are principally Thai, Japanese, and Chinese, a menu that pleases everyone without pulling its flavor punches—though the portions are larger than at its parent restaurant. In fact, if you’re not ravenous, you could feed two people with three dishes, which run about $10 each. The menu breaks into two sections: protein-intensive tapas served on long narrow plates, and starches that arrive in round bowls. In the first category, you’ll find the restaurant’s clever take on fried chicken: a half-dozen wings, with skin and flesh pushed to one end, as in the Indo-Chinese favorite, chicken lollipops. But instead of dipping them in red goo, the chef lightly coats the flightless appendages with rice flour before frying, then smothers them in pickled chilies, which exhibit more sweetness than heat. It’s an altogether memorable dish, and you might like them better than Buffalo wings.
Channeling David Chang, and also in a bar-food vein, a trio of sliders are offered, incorporating a ground-beef patty, homemade pickles, and a slice of the sweet Filipino pork sausage called longanisa. The same sausage appears on another plate with sticky rice and a sweet-sour Thai-style dipping sauce zapped with chilies. Similarly Philippine is a sometime special of pork-belly adobo, the wobbly meat-fat cubes braised in vinegar, soy sauce, and black pepper. The dish was inspired by a Mexican recipe brought to Southeast Asia by Spanish colonialists, in an early version of extreme international fusion.
Other selections on the tapas menu have further Siamese flourishes. There’s a salad of seared skirt steak served on a bed of shredded green papaya, with a tart dressing that contains a soupçon of fish sauce (an ingredient that’s been deleted from most Brooklyn Thai menus), and a salmon fillet bathed in green curry improved with lemongrass. Phojanakong never hesitates to bombard you with strong flavors. On the other hand, on the starch-in-bowls side of the menu you’ll find the umpteenth version of pad thai you’ve probably encountered—and I’m sorry to say this one is no better than any other, a haystack of soft noodles glossed with a sickly sweet sauce and little else.
Much better is the Philippine noodle standard pancit canton. The name refers to the Chinese origin of the dish, and the pile of slender pale noodles regales you with chicken, shrimp, and more of that longanisa. The wildest dishes are found among the specials, and thus it was that I tasted balut, a fertilized egg that’s been incubated 14 days and then boiled, gestating fetus and all. My guests looked on with some horror as I deconstructed this schoolchild’s snack, sipped the dark juice inside, and spooned up the custardy—and occasionally crunchy—interior, which was crazed with blood vessels and smelled like old cheese. What’s the flavor like?” they asked me.
“Well, in this case I can’t give you the standard reply,” I joked, pausing a moment for comic effect, “because it certainly doesn’t taste like chicken.”