On April 30, Johnny Ho opened his third Umami Sushi Lounge and Grill Fusion at 500 Amity Road in Conway. From the restaurant’s name, to its menu selection, to its physical layout and design, Ho’s attention to detail is apparent.
Ho opened his first Umami Japanese restaurant in Russellville one block away from Arkansas Tech University’s football field. "I chose the name ‘Umami’ because it’s something I want my cuisine to live up to," he said. "Umami" is a Japanese word that describes a savory taste and is one of the five basic flavors. The others are sweet, sour, salty and bitter.
Ho’s restaurant was an instant favorite and outgrew its location within 10 months of opening. He then opened a second, larger location near Walmart. "I obtained a private club license, and the added space allowed me to play around a lot more. I hired a few American culinary chefs, and we were able to really get creative and fuse cuisines instead of only serving traditional Japanese food."
Ho describes the food, desserts and drinks at Umami as a fusion between American and Japanese cuisines. "As an Asian American, I love to infuse traditional Japanese tastes with American tastes. It’s Asian food, but it’s not totally authentic. People accustomed to either cuisine can adapt to the taste easily." Ho’s inspiration comes from celebrity chefs Masaharu Morimoto of the "Iron Chef America" television show and Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa. "These chefs are my idols," he said. "I own every book they have written and have visited Morimoto’s restaurants in New York City, Las Vegas and Philadelphia. I travel the world studying food and restaurants and apply what I learn to my establishments."
Umami Sushi and Grill Fusion has an extensive sushi menu with several varieties of sushi and sashimi combinations, house and traditional rolls, and Umami signature rolls. A yumi yumi roll topped with the popular yum yum sauce is listed on the signature menu. There is even an Arkansas River roll and a Russellville roll. "After we discover what menu item people in Conway love most, we’ll create a roll named after this city as well," Ho said. "In Russellville, our smoked salmon is popular so we incorporated it into the roll."
The restaurant has hibachi entrees and plated entrees. Ho said customers will find distinct items on the hibachi menu, such as mahi-mahi and rib-eye steak. He also encourages customers to try menu items prepared in the kitchen. "I take great pride in our kitchen food. Believe it or not, our must-try menu item in my opinion is our hot-stone American Kobe beef and our American Kobe beef burger. All of our beef is USDA choice and hand-butchered in house."
The 10,000-square-foot restaurant seats up to 325 people and has plenty of open space to feel relaxed and not crowded, even on the busiest nights. Much of the property was formerly the site of a 15,000-square-foot telemarketing company. "We have completely transformed this space and incorporated feng shui techniques into our lighting, color, water features and overall design. It’s very new age and contemporary," Ho said.
The restaurant has overflow hibachi rooms as well as a private room that can seat approximately 25 people. The private room is ideal for business or recreational purposes. Corporate meeting groups have access to a 70-inch television with Apple TV connectivity, which enables business professionals to stream content wirelessly from their iPhones or iPads. The room can also serve as a lounge or reception area and has a karaoke machine. Just like the food at Umami, karaoke at the restaurant blends American and Asian culture.
"Karaoke is really popular in Asia, but it’s performed mostly in private rooms instead of in open areas," Ho explained. "Karaoke rooms are commonly referred to as KTV rooms in Japan, which is an abbreviation for karaoke television. Our room at Umami is similar to KTV rooms, and we feature popular music from Asia and the United States. International students can come here in their free time and have an element of home, and Americans will enjoy it as well."
Umami Sushi Lounge and Grill Fusion is open Monday through Saturday. During the workweek, the restaurant opens for lunch at 11 a.m., closes from 2-5 p.m. and reopens for dinner from 5 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. (10 p.m. on Friday). It stays open continuously on Saturday from noon until 10 p.m. Umami will stay open until 2 a.m. when its private club license goes into effect mid-June. The regular menu will not be available after normal hours, but customers can order snack foods and drinks as they enjoy live entertainment on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Johnny Ho was raised in California and earned a bachelor’s degree in international business from San José State University. He came to Arkansas because his mother and aunt – who emigrated from Taiwan nearly 40 years ago – owned Chinese restaurants in Little Rock. "I grew up in the restaurant business, so it was the last thing I wanted to do," he said. Ho worked with his father importing and exporting goods out of China before returning to the food industry in 2007. "My passion for food kept bringing me back to the business."
Ho’s passion is undeniable. While working on a project prior to the restaurant’s grand opening, Ho fell 12 feet from the ceiling above his office onto the floor. He fractured a bone in his foot and has spent several weeks in a wheelchair. "This accident happened the second day of our soft opening. It was the worst possible time to get hurt," Ho said. "But it’s not going to keep me away. I am passionate about what I do and will work to see this restaurant succeed."
For more information about Umami Sushi Lounge and Grill Fusion, call 501-358-3880 or visit UmamiConway.com.