Lisa Lee, owner of Umi Sake (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy…)
Some restaurants, you feel, will succeed simply because of the force of the owner's personality. In the case of Umi Sake, the new sushi restaurant in Cockeysville where Pacific Rim used to be, I imagine people will go just because the owner, Lisa Lee, is such a positive presence in the dining room.
Lee used to own Johnny's Sushi in Timonium, named after her brother, the chef. She sold the place and had a baby. Three years later, when Pacific Rim in Cockeysville closed, the landlord called her to see if she'd be interested in being a restaurateur again.
Her brother, Johnny Zhang, who she says worked in a high-end restaurant in their native Shanghai, is running the kitchen in the new restaurant. However, Lee says she developed the recipes, which are Chinese, Japanese, Thai and Korean. (She's one-quarter Japanese herself.)
Lee has completely redone the Pacific Rim space; the contemporary dining rooms and bar are spare but bright and cheerful, with white walls, white-clothed tables, and funky orange stools at the sushi bar. It's pleasant and casual.
Given how much competition there is in the area (I sometimes think Towson is the sushi capital of Maryland), it was surprising just how busy Umi Sake was on a recent weeknight. It doesn't hurt that you can get everything there from a spicy lemongrass seafood salad to Peking duck for one.
Sushi is a main focus of the restaurant. Some of the signature rolls make a bit too much use of cream cheese, mango, pine nuts and blueberry sauce for my taste; but traditionalists will find plenty to like on the sushi menu, which offers tantalizingly fresh fish and elegant presentations. To get an overview, you could order the Eight Is Enough signature appetizer: eight pieces of sushi that complement each other with both simple fish/rice combinations and elaborate creations jauntily decorated. The eight are very pretty on their stark white platter and make a satisfying introduction to what the sushi chef can do.
The dishes from the kitchen tend to be a one-trick pony, although you wouldn't guess it from their descriptions. Keep that in mind, and you'll enjoy your meal here. There may be entrees on the menu that are loaded with vegetables and de-emphasize the protein and sauce, but we didn't come across them.
The eggplant stuffed with shrimp was delicious in a guilty-pleasure way. The result was something like shrimp toast, only made with eggplant instead of bread, so the vegetable's soft, hot interior contrasted seductively with the golden fried crust.
Our waitress recommended the calamari tempura, but it turned out to be simply good fried calamari. No matter how much you love fried calamari, there are more interesting appetizers on the menu.
The Scallop Dynamite is a must-have if you haven't had enough in the way of oh-so-bad-for-you, oh-so-good high-calorie fried foods: a combination of a fat scallop, cream cheese (again, one ingredient I could do without), rice and a crusty fried exterior.
Even better are the scallion pancakes, wrapped around crunchy green beans. They were as close as we came to a vegetable, and I would order them again in a heartbeat.
Umi Sake's sesame shrimp weren't on the regular menu the night we were there, but Lee says this special has been so popular she's going to add the dish soon. These are enormous shrimp, battered and fried and covered with a sweet and tangy sauce that was applied with a light hand.
We got away from fried food when we ordered the spicy rack of lamb. The three rib chops were spicy indeed -- as in smoke coming out of your ears spicy. They lay on a bed of wasabi mashed potatoes, which could have come out of a box. It's an entree that would benefit from a vegetable.
We also avoided another fried dish by having the steamed orange roughy. The fillets were overcooked but fresh, and delicately flavored with ginger and green onions. It's definitely a dish that should be part of a well-rounded menu of shared dishes, though, not ordered on its own. Nothing else comes with the fish.
Umi Sake's Peking duck was disappointing; the meat dry and the pancakes too thick. But oh, that crackling, mahogany-brown, fat-free duck skin. You could make a meal just on it. It's rare to see this dish on a menu for under $20, so give Umi Sake credit for that. In fact, prices in general are remarkably reasonable -- one explanation, I'm sure, for the restaurant's popularity. Nothing except for a couple of sushi entrees cost more than $20.
Umi Sake's wine and beer list is bare-bones but decent for an Asian restaurant, with plenty of sakes available. Desserts are about what you'd expect. If you can handle more fried food, there's always the tempura ice cream. Otherwise it's cheesecake or chocolate lava cake, neither of which is made in house.
It would be very hard not to like Umi Sake, with its excellent sushi and decent Pan-Asian food. Lisa Lee sees to that. She goes from table to table, checking on her guests, happy to share her enthusiasm for the food and any of her life history you want to ask her about. I imagine that by your second visit to this engaging restaurant, she'll make you feel like you're old friends.
Where: 9726 York Road, Cockeysville
Contact: 410-667-6585, UmiSake.com
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday brunch
First courses: $2.95-$8.50, entrees: $8.50-$19.95
Food: ** 1/2
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: * ]