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Pan-Asian Encounters

An Asia-Centric Celebration of the Annual Sonoma County Restaurant Week

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Passion for the Ocean: Ume Japanese Bistro

UME-VISION Owner Kelly Shu in her Windsor sushi emporium - MICHAEL AMSLER
  • Michael Amsler
  • UME-VISION Owner Kelly Shu in her Windsor sushi emporium

Like a bright urchin glistening in a tidepool, Windsor's Ume Japanese Bistro waits to be discovered by the curious ocean lover looking for the beauty of the natural world.

The uni, delivered fresh from Fort Bragg, tastes as if it had been plucked from the rocks that morning. The creamy, oceanic richness overwhelms my senses as I struggle to find words to show my appreciation to chef Eduardo Tejeda for making this simple yet complexly flavored dish so perfectly. But words aren't necessary—the veteran sushi chef knows everything I'm trying to say simply by reading my face.

"Some customers come in and ask for something special, just for them," he says. "I look at how they look at the fish. Reading the customers is a challenge, but that's why it's fun."

Tejeda has been a sushi chef for 21 years, five of them at Ume. The restaurant focuses on simplicity to achieve its elegant look, both on the plate and in the dining room. "It's like a painting," says Tejeda about the plating of his dishes. "I start with the background, then vocalize the colors."

And, as owner Kelly Shu chimes in, the visual aspect is a complement to the taste. Her husband, Chang Liow, is a certified sommelier, and Ume offers hand-selected sakes and wines to accompany their dishes, which can rotate on a monthly basis. Shu says Ume's style is at times experimental, thought it sticks mostly to classic sushi and sashimi, with "a twist to traditional Japanese dishes."

There are plenty of customers that don't even look at the menu, "They say, 'Just make me something,'" says Shu. Most are regulars, but some travel from as far away as Petaluma and Ukiah for the omakase, a dish that translates roughly to "trust the chef." It's a good bet that in a place like Ume that will be the best selection, even if it's a complete surprise. Tejeda takes immense pride in his work. Having studied in San Francisco's Japantown and being offered a job at Iron Chef Matsumoto's eponymously named restaurant in Napa, he chooses to work closer to home, in Windsor.

Tejeda says a key to the restaurant's success is teamwork. He is quick to praise his fellow chefs, saying he teaches them as much as he can. "That makes the restaurant better," he says. And, of course, all new dishes have to pass the Shu test.

Restaurant week is a testing ground for dishes that have become menu staples, says Shu, and every dish on the tasting menu is a new, off-menu item.—Nicolas Grizzle

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