Umana Restaurant and Wine Bar in Albany opened on November 1, the end of a three-year project for owner Dale Davidson. The interior of the space was gutted during that time, and Davidson had some of the furnishings built for the restaurant in Haiti -- tables and chairs were constructed and hand-woven there -- and the walls were hand-painted to create a bright and inviting space.
While this is truly impressive -- and Umana is one of the most striking restaurant spaces in the entire area -- the menu is equally compelling. And the menu item that intrigued me most was the Samosa Trio.
Chef de cuisine Nick Foster (formerly of All Good Bakers) says the restaurant's fare is "loosely inspired by street food from around the world, mostly from places close to or south of the equator."
The samosas at Umana are a fine example of collaboration. While the idea of having samosas on the menu was owner Davidson's, and Foster has had input in the fillings for these little pocket pastries, sous chef Mike Troidle provided the recipe and spends much of his time at the restaurant making them. With experience working at an Indian restaurant in Florida, Troidle's knowledge of the traditional Indian samosa has allowed him to successfully experiment with the versions served at Umana.
Wary of sticking too close to the standard samosa recipe, Troidle says, "I didn't want to go with triangle [shape] because we're not doing traditional samosas." Instead, Umana's samosas are shaped like empanadas and crimped along their curved edge. All three kinds include a blend of potatoes, peas, onions, ginger, and curry spices, the most direct call-out to the Indian version. Yet whereas the traditional samosa usually contains large chunks of potato, Umana's feature potatoes chopped into small pieces and cooked so they still have a bit of bite to them, creating a pleasant textural contrast to the softer items in each of the samosas.
The Samosa Trio includes one of these empanada-like versions of the traditional Indian pastry filled with salted cod, one with curried goat, another with tempeh -- and each was delightful and satisfying.
I was most intrigued by the salted cod samosa, and after trying it, it's the one that holds up as most memorable. You don't see salted cod on many restaurant menus in Albany, and part of the reason for that is the time-consuming method necessary to rehydrate and desalinate the fish. Troidle describes it as a two- or three-day process, changing the water multiple times a day. "I soak the fish with a variety of different fresh herbs, then I mix it with dill before putting it into the samosas."
The resulting product -- transformed into what Foster refers to as a choka -- is a mashed mixture that retains some flakiness and successfully melds the lingering tastes of salt, fish, and herbs. You can see the roots of this samosa in Caribbean cuisine, and the entire combination, from the potatoes to the fish, comes together surprisingly well. Troidle expected customers would be hesitant to try this samosa; instead, he's found it's the most popular of the trio.
The uniqueness of the salted cod samosa doesn't mean the other two should be overlooked. The curried goat one again utilizes flavors of the Caribbean. Foster says, "The curried goat is the curried goat we have on the menu [from the goat satay entrée] that we stew all day." Goat has a gamey flavor, but, as Troidle says, cooking it in coconut milk "kind of calms down the goat a little bit, but you still know it's goat."
The tempeh samosa, meanwhile, features a soy product that I think is underused in Capital Region restaurants. Made through fermenting and culturing soybeans, tempeh comes in cake form and has a great, toothsome texture and ability to soak up flavor (Troidle refers to it as "a sponge"). Foster showcased it in some dishes at All Good Bakers, and using it here, he says, "is a no-brainer." At Umana, he marinates it in a mixture of sesame oil, soy sauce, honey, and Sriracha. All those elements come through wonderfully in the small pieces of tempeh in the samosas -- there's sweetness, saltiness, and a little bit of heat.
The trio of samosas come out to $11, a price that feels reasonable when considering not only the effort that goes into making each one, but the entire atmosphere at the restaurant. An attractive wood bar is situated near the front of the restaurant, providing a fine place to sip one of the many wines offered at Umana, or the coconut herbal iced tea from Wellington's Farm in Schoharie.
The Samosa Trio is just one of many reasons to visit Umana. The same thought and care that was put into the physical space is matched by the way Foster and Troidle develop and prepare the food. With Sunday brunch service soon to be offered, and a menu that continues to expand to include some of the customers' favorite daily specials, those running Umana are showing a true passion for innovation--something that I hope can be embraced fully by the Albany dining community.
Jeff Janssens writes about food and beer at The Masticating Monkey.
Umana Restaurant and Wine Bar
236 Washington Ave
Albany, NY 12210
Umana is open Tuesday-Sunday from 5:30-10:30 pm.
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