A bright, new sushi restaurant in Jacksonville delivers a wave of flavor with quality ingredients and innovative preparations.

A bright, new sushi restaurant in Jacksonville delivers a wave of flavor with quality ingredients and innovative preparations.

K.J. Nam, who has 35 years experience as a sushi chef, opened Umi Sushi in late January. Since then, the buzz I had heard about Umi, which means "ocean" in Japanese, was all good.

I've stopped in for lunch and dinner and found much to like about the little restaurant, which has a handful of seats at the sushi bar and just eight tables.

That's slightly bigger than previous restaurants housed in "Beekmans Express," a 2002 reconstruction of one of Jacksonville's first buildings. The small space was home to another sushi restaurant, Jazushi back in 2008, then a string of burger places — Jaspers and Gold Dust Cafe.

When my husband and I stopped in at Umi for dinner, the place was packed, even on a Thursday night, but the helpful waitress offered to call us when a preferred table opened up. We strolled across the street to BoomTown Saloon, another brand-new business in the heart of Jacksonville, for a drink while we waited. BoomTown Saloon opened this month in the space that was recently occupied by LodeStar.

There, the bartender and my husband both noted that the chamber of commerce could benefit a bunch of businesses by investing in the pagers restaurants use to alert customers that their tables are ready. People could check in at a restaurant of their choice, then roam Jacksonville, visiting shops or bars while they worked up an appetite.

When our call came, we popped back across Third Street and settled in to survey Umi's menu. We were there for sushi, but the restaurant also prepares other typical Japanese fare.

The menu includes teriyaki, short ribs, Japanese curry and two types of the breaded cutlets known as katsu — traditional pork-cutlet tonkatsu and a chicken version. There are also noodle dishes such as yakisoba, ramen, udon and cold soba noodles.

For something a little different, we decided to try the $8 "Umi pizza," an unusual preparation of rice, salmon, snapper and an array of slightly spicy sauces layered on a sheet of nori to create a sort of open-faced maki roll (or unroll, perhaps) that is passed under the broiler. Cut into small squares, it was a hot and savory option.

Vegetable tempura, priced at $5 for an appetizer, arrived hot and crispy. Green beans, asparagus, zucchini and slices of winter squash and sweet potatoes were all perfectly cooked and left no greasy residue.

A sushi combination with nine, nicely sized pieces of nigiri and a California roll enabled us to try several types of tuna, rich salmon, tender shrimp and octopus for $17. The seafood was fresh and delicious, but the sweetness of the seasoned rice nearly overpowered some of the milder fish.

A co-worker and I stopped in another day for lunch, ordering an array of maki rolls. While he is wary of raw fish, Umi offers a good selection of vegetarian rolls.

The sushi menu helpfully groups sushi-roll selections in categories such as vegetarian, classic, fried, specialty and premium. (Premium has the real crab.) Prices range from $3 for a simple cucumber roll to $13 for the popular Imperial roll, which includes eel, several types of tuna, avocado, green onions and masago, or tiny fish eggs.

I also loved that the sushi menu is laminated so diners mark their choices with an erasable marker, then the cards are wiped clean for reuse.

"It saves some paper," Nam said.

With creamy avocado, sweet and tender-crisp asparagus with a crunchy tempura coating and cool, snappy cucumber, the tempura vegetable roll ($4.50) provided a symphony of textures, temperatures and flavors in every bite. And the plump roll was sliced thinly enough to make each bite manageable, too.

I had to try a spicy tuna roll, one of my favorites, and found this version, priced at $4.50, nicely spiced. The waitress said the spicy tuna and the Imperial roll are among Umi's most popular offerings.

We also tried the vegetable gyoza, a fried dumpling stuffed with shredded cabbage and carrot. They weren't quite as perfectly fried as the tempura but were quite good.

Since I first dined there, the restaurant reports that it has received its full inventory of beer, including domestic, Asian and other imported labels, an interesting lineup of sake and several wines, including a Japanese plum wine and local selections from Del Rio Vineyards & Winery in Gold Hill.

With a pleasant, casual atmosphere, quality food and good prices, Umi is an excellent addition to Jacksonville. It doesn't accept checks or American Express cards, but all other credit cards are taken.

— Anita Burke