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Photograph by George Sakkestad

Mountain Spirits: Michael Miller and Cam Fraser, managing partners of Umunhum, stand inside thier impressive wine room.

Almaden Ambience

The smart new Almaden dining room, Umunhum, rewards gastronomes with a polished interior and eclectic flavors

By Christina Waters

ACE CHEF AND experimental food wizard Michael Miller is a local. Once upon a time he sautéed at Mio Vicino, and more recently he opened the kitchen at Sunnyvale's Tarragon. He honed his skills in between, mentored by the fusion genius of Wolfgang Puck. And now Miller has come back home to roost, as in "hummingbird," whose Native American name is Umunhum. By day you can probably see the deliciously named mountain that looms over the eastern edges of the South Bay. But by night you have to keep your eyes peeled for Restaurant Umunhum as you cruise Alamaden Expressway--the turnoff is at Via Valiente. No more imposing than the average mall facade, Umunhum opens its glass doors to a neo-industrial interior of welcoming sophistication. Deep plum walls and banquettes are accented by thick white linens and stone floors. The sleek little spun steel bar gleams under a necklace of suspended spotlights. Kathleen's artistic eye was drawn to a wall of gorgeous etched glass sconces opposite our table. Despite the lofty ceilings and minimal decor, the noise level was refreshingly low. Umunhum offers conversational possibilities, as well as one of the brightest wine lists around.

Including exotica from Spain, Oregon and the Rhône, the menu lists over 30 wines by the glass. The chilly evening inclined us toward Oregon, so we chose a splendid 1998 Pinot Noir from Rex Hill ($8.25) and a Willakenzie Pinot Blanc 1998 ($6.25), both from the Willamette Valley and both terrific.

Puck's inflection was evident in the huge linen-wrapped selection of breads, served with lemon and herb-laced butter. I quickly dispatched something delicious with seeds all over the crust and was about to grab another slab of fragrant sourdough when our starters arrived.

Chartreuse and aromatic with white truffle oil, a wide bowl of intense pea bisque was warming and luxurious ($7). The truffle muskiness played off bits of Westphalian ham--autumn at its tastiest. My appetizer of fruit-glazed quail offered four fat, crispy moist quarters, glistening in sticky sweetness on a deep blue ceramic square ($12). A timbale of crisp sesame-topped rice sat in the center, anointed by zest of carrot, chive and daikon. The Mediterranean and the Far East blended cozily in this signature starter.

Main dishes ranged further afield. Kathleen's moist, rice-paper-wrapped salmon arrived glistening with oil, rather than steamed or baked as expected ($20). Punctuated with indistinct flavors of eggplant and the occasional fava bean, its mild curry broth didn't excite the attending microshreds of pancetta and occasional Corinth grape. My perfectly cooked veal chop ($24), described as "espresso dusted," was delicious. Perhaps the sweet, rich persimmon glaze on top was a bit too thickly applied, and the exquisite fingerling potatoes too spare--they were so good that a few more would have been very welcome. The veal reduction juices were sumptuous, however, and I thought it a wonderful entree. Kudos to the house for offering reasonably sized portions, priced to match.

One of the secret weapons of Umunhum is pastry chef Mindi Copper, whose array of seasonally inspired desserts showcased fruit, glazes and cream. We had no complaints with the selection, though our service could have been more attentive--too long between suggestions and returning for orders.

A bracing espresso would have been joined by a glass of honeyesque Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise, had driving not been part of my after-dinner plans. Still, two desserts made us very happy. A tiny, individual, warm gingerbread cake sat like a burnt orange queen in the middle of warm apple slices, chewy sundried cherries and a topping of disarmingly creamy champagne sabayon ($6). Kathleen's pretty confection of two meringue layers, filled with a gossamer chocolate mousse, tasted somehow like Vienna--ah, Puck's influence perhaps. Or maybe just my imagination, inspired to visions of Europe in autumn by the tracery of raspberry glaze against the meringue and chocolate pulchritude ($6). Great opening, great finish. Bold wine list, cosmopolitan ambience and exciting flavor synergy. Umunhum--not just another pretty mountain.

Restaurant Umunhum
Address: 6944 Almaden Expressway, San Jose
Phone: 408.927.8773
Hours: Tue-Sun from 5:30pm. Closed Mon.
Cuisine: New American Fusion
Executive Chef: Michael Miller

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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