How to Play With Fire: Ooma by Bruce Ricketts Takes Casual Japanese to the Next LevelJuly 24, 2015
Fire: energetic, passionate, always eliciting emotions for those who cross its path. The same can be said about the Moment Group’s newest establishment, Ooma. Located at the SM Mega Fashion Hall, it sets the local restaurant scene ablaze with innovation and excitement, all while catering to the need for genuinely good grub. The typically long lines outside might turn you off, but persist and you will be rewarded. Just stepping into the restaurant is a gateway to another world—they’ve got some of the typical elements of Japanese restaurant interiors alright, but with a slice of realism that makes it easy to forget you’re still in a mall. Over at one corner are rain boots lined up by the walls, crates in place of the chairs, a manhole on the ground, and a weighing scale—a kooky touch that pays homage to the iconic Tsukiji Market. The inspiration carries over as the restaurant is dimly lit and appealingly disheveled. Look up and you see pipes, evoking an industrial feel along with corrugated sheets on the walls. At the center is a small bar for those dining solo.
The menu was developed in collaboration with one of today’s biggest culinary rockstars, Chef Bruce Ricketts. One can see influences of his work from his other ventures—Mecha Uma’s experimental creativity, Sensei Sushi’s emphasis on freshness, Ricketts’ signature plating with panache—but Ooma departs by being less chef-centric. The diner is put at the forefront, encouraged to actively participate. Soy sauce is a basic table condiment that can intensify the umami hit of any dish—and at Ooma, one can literally paint it on the food with a set of brushes on every table. Using the hands to pick up food is permitted, if not, the more practical option for some of their offerings. Warranted, too, is family-style sharing—an act the portion sizes will more than allow for. Ooma puts the aburi technique on the spotlight: literally ‘to burn’, the flame of a blowtorch is briefly passed upon the top, adding a slight char and a smoky backdrop where it hits. “Fire can be destructive or tame,” Chef Bruce Ricketts says. Done right, the method awakens and brings out something different in the ingredients, rather than obliterating them into black mush. It’s a skill that takes both daringness and restraint—a feat this establishment can consistently vouch itself for. The name ‘Ooma’ is a play on the Japanese word umai, which generally means ‘good’—and in the context of food, it’s a somewhat brash, masculine way of saying ‘HELLA TASTY’. Essentially a rice bar, servings of our favorite carb come unlimited here. More than that, the restaurant prides itself on serving modern Japanese fare; it’s not necessarily ‘authentic’ in the sense that people typically use the word, but experimental and innovative. While tradition emphasizes subtlety, Ooma goes for a vibrant explosion of flavor. Created with the modern Filipino in mind, they appeal to our penchant for strong, in-your-face levels of intensity, with ingredients and techniques from the land of the rising sun.
Each dish on the menu is listed along with the different components that make it up. Expect to see a lot of Japanese ingredients and influences: tobiko, nori, shiso, pickled vegetables, and the like. But don’t get all caught up in intimidation—with the flare of the torch to tie them together, they make for a combination that is straightforward and satisfying. It’s a great way to indulge in familiar flavors while knowing there is creativity and thought behind each dish–feeding both the heart and the mind, so to speak. We begin with the small plates. First up is the Uma Viche, which has alternating layers of Kangkong tempura and a ceviche of lapu-lapu, pickled vegetables, sesame seeds, and scallions. The customer, of course, has the freedom to eat it as they’d like, but I find it easier to pile the ceviche on the leaves and eat it like a loaded nacho chip—each bite is a melange of crisp, tart, and juicy, igniting the appetite for the feast to come.
A more indulgent starter is the O-Gyoza, their take on the pan-seared dumpling—this time oozing with cheddar and mozzarella cheese. It’s not too far-off an idea: upon further inspection, the dish reminds me of stuffed-and-baked pasta dishes, made bolder and spicier both inside and out. The heat of the filling and the togarashi is tempered with the freshness of scallions and a kiss of sweet unagi sauce. The soy sauce paintbrush, of course, is available for anybody needing it—but this is one of those dumplings that’s quite delectable on its own. A dish they consider their signature is the Taco-maki, a reimagined form of the classic temaki. Taking the place of the taco is the nori, torched until the edges curl to form a boat, and in it, a plethora of toppings on a bed of rice. We first try the Spicy Lapu-Lapu Taco-maki, which pairs the clean flavors of the fish with truffle oil, pickled mushrooms, tempura crumbs, aligue mayo, kimchi, and pickles for a tantalizing burst of piquancy and earthiness. Another variant on our table is the California Taco-maki, with kani sticks, aligue mayo, herb aioli, and mango pico. Not that I’m of the authority to proclaim this, but I’d dare say it’s an excellent example of fusion done right—the transition is smooth and doesn’t feel forced. The mango serves to bridge East and West, both reinforcing the original roll’s identity and working as a fruity constituent to the zesty pico.
The blowtorch once again gives character to another signature dish, the Aburi Maki. We try the Salmon skin variant, which features torched salmon draped on a roll with asparagus, cream cheese, wasabi aioli, and teriyaki sauce. The flame brings out the fish’s natural sweetness, adding a subtly smoky char while keeping the underside moist and succulent. Inside, it’s a tango of spicy and creamy, and crispy bits of salmon skin on top are a delightful antithesis that rounds out this composition. Those looking for something more substantial may want to opt for their hot bowls. We try the Buta Kakuni Katsudon, with an especially tender slow-roasted pork belly that’s breaded and fried, stewed briefly in a soy mixture as eggs are strewn in. The resulting meat is especially tender and flavorful, and the rice underneath gets flavored with the house tare and all the extra juices. Truth be told, I’d be more than contented with that alone. But while typical rice bowls can drown one in one-dimensional comfort, Ooma begs to differ. Scattered about like petals are bits of pickled onion, strips of nori, whispy strands of carrots, and various sprouts—a diverse selection that add interest and contrast, both from visually and texturally. While the mains may prove to be quite the starch-fest, make sure to save room for dessert. We try the Matcha Green Tea-ramisu, with coffee, rum, and matcha green tea. Their take mostly adheres to the classic, with layers of tangy mascarpone cheese and soaked ladyfingers, but with the addition of the Japanese tea. While the bitterness of coffee and rum still dominate the palate, the grassy notes of matcha slowly, subtly build up its presence with every mouthful. Now you could be normal (i.e., boring) and eat this with a spoon…..or, do it like I do, and use the lone ladyfinger on the side as an edible scooper. That way, you get a light crunch that keeps it from being cloying.
There are a lot of other options on the menu, including a few Tataki options, Hot Plates (entrees), a whole section dedicated to Udon and Chahan, and a range of sake. Truth be told, I’d order everything off the menu if I had the money (or the stomach space), and as I write this at 3 AM I’m already planning what to get next. (Namely, that hanger steak!) This is a place that warrants repeated visits, as there always seems to be something new to try, something novel to tease the appetite. At less than 500 bucks a dish and with its convenient location, well, I certainly will be back soon. Now, anybody can just throw a bunch of different ingredients on a bowl (cue in Emeril going “Bam! Bam!”) and call it a meal—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But Ooma stands out by maintaining the equilibrium. The dishes are indulgent, for sure, but always with other elements to balance them out. Different textures and flavors continually mingle, producing new sensations better than just the sum of their parts. Rather than reeking of excess, there is enough variety and contrast within dishes and between dishes to make for a dynamic experience—one that is never static, and always moving forward. The spark and vivacity of Ooma is still burning strong, but at the end of the day, the spirit of this rice bar lies in palate, comfort, and the joys of eating. And these are the things that mark Ooma, unlike real fire, as a flame that never dies out.
Have you tried Ooma? What was the dish there that you enjoyed the most? Sound off with a comment below!
Pepper.ph was invited to feature the above establishment. Therefore, the feature includes no rating whatsoever, which can be influenced or biased.
Address: 3F SM Mega Fashion Hall, SM Megamall, Mandaluyong City