7131 Germantown Avenue
(215) 242-6470

Umbria will delight you physically. Although situated between Mt. Airy and Mt. Pleasant on Germantown Avenue, its gastronomic gravitational center is located somewhere among Miami, Berkeley and Montego Bay.

A deceivingly succinct pink and gray storefront portal opens into a dazzling shebang of recessed lighting fixtures and shapely hanging lamps. The effect balances an ultra-modern luminescence with the comforting coolness of indirect shadows thrown at marbled white walls.

The ceiling is forced optically upward as one's eyes attempt to focus simultaneously upon it and the plush pile of a dark plum-colored carpet. Two wide framed mirrors adorn the restaurant's right; three huge mural flowers exhibit stamen by its left. Straight ahead is an immense kitchen whose inhabitants may be viewed through a two-by one-foot glass rectangle positioned at head's height in the middle of an otherwise swinging door. All chairs are candy store, comfortable and deep mint green. Having just immigrated from Germantown Avenue's dreary Chinese Take-Out's and Karaoke Bars, you'll gasp at Umbria's gracious, spacious charms.

Each table, and there are only a baker's dozen of them, has as its centerpiece what seems to be pussy willow stems nestled in an empty napkin-lined liter wine decanter. Closer inspection reveals an edible display of crunchy skinny breadsticks filled with herbs and garlic, toasted to a lengthy crisp. Fabulous fodder to nibble while perusing the chalkboard menu brought tableside, and while sipping wine brought from home. Remember to bring your own, as no liquor license resides on the premises. Make it a hearty beverage, as the food served here is powerfully flavorful and purposefully full of itself.

Ordering is easy. The soups are extraordinary, the polenta fabulous, the sauces rich and grand; and the Caribbean dishes are as casual and creative as a folk song's lyric.

Soups (usually priced at $3.50) are served with a mound of hot sourdough bread whose taste will make you pucker. Within one cheek, squirrel away a huge hunk of bread. Then bring a soup spoon of Black Bean broth studded with African black pepper and sour cream to your mouth. Swirl your tongue into a ladle and maneuver your jaw so that the liquid drenches the dough. Add another soup spoon quickly until what's below your palate is actually swelling. When the mound in mouth is fully engorged and when the redolence of the hot black pepper is about to cause you to sneeze, open your lips wide, flare your nostrils and swallow whole. Your eyes will glow as golden as embers in a well-drafted fireplace. Ask for another loaf of bread.

The same can be done with the Butternut Squash with Sweetened Cranberry Soup, except that just as you open wide, position your fists at either side of your cheeks pushing in, and raise your index fingers to point toward your ears. Your face shall become the replica of the crotch of a stuffed holiday turkey.

As an appetizer, the Escargots ($6.95) are a must. The browned naked snails are huddled within a porcelain mini-decanter at whose bottom is broiling clarified butter, garlic and chopped peppercorns. A tiny fork pokes at the silken concoctions to pry one away from hugging the others. As you raise the morsel, a tear sizzles from it and begins to droop. The wet escargot melts instantly and coats your larynx luxuriously. Vocal chords relax so promptly and so involuntarily at the dousing, that an irrepressible gurgle echoes into a full blown moan.

The Jumbo Shrimp entrée over rice ($18.50) and the Red Snapper under French-cut string beans ($17.50) are perfectly done, fawning in freshness and inherently delicious. Each item served here that comes from the sea bursts with waves of honest flavors and with spices as delicately handled as the cross-examination of an expert witness.

My favorite repast is the Curried Lamb ($17.25) served with rice, raisins, currants, carrots and parsley. A lamb shank traverses the platter seven inches wide, 10 inches long, and an inch thick. A small steak knife is placed between the rice and parsley. It's hardly necessary. Meat pulls from the center bone almost at a glance. Marinated with curry, the seasoned lamb is bereft of gaminess and is as tenderized as possible without falling sheepishly apart. Sweet bursts of softened raisins cause a giggle or two until the heated lava of curry double-crosses them abruptly. This is savory stuff that may also be used to remove sunspots from the back of one's hands.

I've always been too full to try the desserts, which are, I have heard, $5.95. Excellent coffee is served in a bountiful glass beer mug. One waitperson, on weekday evenings, casually attired, serves the entire room efficiently and cordially. Patrons are never overdressed, but always neatly and brightly outfitted. Reservations for weekends must be made by the Tuesday preceding. Cash only.


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back