Umana Restaurant & Wine Bar, Albany

One of the Hudson Valley’s best new restaurants in 2014

When Umana first opened its doors in November 2013, all anyone could talk about was the samosas. But now, the trio of fried delights stuffed with coconut-curried goat, salt cod choka, and sweet and spicy tempeh has moved into second, or possibly third, place. The new winner? The fresh tilapia fish tacos with red curry aïoli. 

Of course, there’s always something a little bit different on the menu at Umana, which specializes in street food and wines from around the world. Umana Yana means “meeting place of the people” in the language of the Wai-Wai Amerindians of Guyana, where owner Dale Davidson hails from. “I wanted to create a space where people from all walks of life, religions, and ethnicities could come together, and I think that one of the best ways to connect is through food,” says Davidson.

Take the jerk lamb lollipops — three Frenched lamb chops rubbed with a deeply flavorful dry jerk, grilled, and served with a piquant pineapple mint sauce, coconut rice, and fried plantains — that straddle the line between savory and sweet.

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“What makes our jerk different is that we get our dry rub brought in from a village called St. Catherine in Jamaica, where they go into the forest to harvest natural tree bark and pimentos,” Davidson says. “There’s a slight sharpness but also a cinnamon-y warmth and sweetness — it’s very aromatic.”

Step inside the glass-fronted restaurant and you’re instantly transported from the urban reality of Townsend Park to somewhere that is decidedly “other.” Light shines down from the artfully cut iron lights crafted from recycled oil drums. Chairs made with woven sea grass accompany wooden tables made in Haiti. Red painted wooden stools belly up to the bar — a long affair crafted from thick boards of reclaimed barn wood. To the left of the bar, a large mural inspired by Haitian artwork serves as the focal point of the room.

Davidson sees life as “a big collaboration of energy. One person’s actions impact someone else.” She has been going to Haiti for more than 20 years. “After the earthquake [in 2010], I went to see what I could do. My best friend had these wonderful chairs made out of sea grass that I loved. And my order of the chairs for the restaurant paid for a whole year of school for the children of the family that makes them.”

Although her vision is global, Davidson is serious about acting locally. She has a partnership with the Culinary Arts Department at Schenectady County Community College, participates in a summer program helping local high school students work in a community garden, and supports local artists and artisans. And she continues to build relationships with local providers and farmers like Wellington’s Herbs and Spices in Schoharie, which grows the restaurant’s popular coconut-infused Island tea.

“The best thing about this experience is that I never know who’s going to show up here,” Davidson says. “I look forward to seeing who’s gonna walk in the door and what their stories will be.”

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The Crowd: A big group of former Peace Corps volunteers could be seated next to a professor taking a job prospect out to dinner. Says Davidson, “We have all ages: from Cyrus who is turning two (we bought baby chairs and cups for him) to our friend Mark, who is in his 80s.”

Don’t Miss: The lamb burger seasoned with fresh thyme and lime juice; topped with sriracha aïoli, goat cheese, and grilled red onions; and served on a brioche bun. No fries, you get fried ripe plantains instead. The “make your own mimosa” option pairs a bottle of Champagne with a tumbler of fruit juice.

The Basics: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday, Sunday brunch. Appetizers $8-$12, entrées $13-$19

Umana Restaurant & Wine Bar 
236 Washington Ave., Albany

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