Umami Burger: An L.A. Burger Comes East
The "classic" Umami burger (shitake mushrooms, roasted tomatoes and a parmesan crisp) awaits the first bite
When my father wrote to finalize our plans for his visit to New York, he mentioned the James Turrell show at the Guggenheim, and lunch. I asked if he was hankering for anything specific lunch-wise, and he wrote: a good burger.
I told him I had the perfect place: Umami Burger. As native Los Angeleno's I figured who better to check out the west coast chain that wanted to give Shake Shack a run for its money. Created by Adam Fleischman, the food at Umami Burger has been engineered to spark our five senses. Each burger, six ounce patties that are ground in-house, are complemented with secret additions like Umami Master Sauce and Umami Dust, which Fleischman spent years crafting. In the olden days of Chinese food from strip malls, I think this addition was called MSG.
At one time there were only four recognized senses of taste: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This was taken as gospel until the late 1800s when Escoffier, the famed French chef, started tinkering with veal stock. While on the other side of the world, the Japanese were doing what they do best, making their own stocks using bases that included miso and kombu and seaweed. These wholly unique tastes bridged all the four known senses and then some. However it wasn't accepted until a Japanese chemist dug deeper, honing in on a fifth taste, glutamic acid. He renamed it umami, which loosely in Japanese means yummy or delicious. So now there are five.
With all the hype––the name, the press, the concept––I was ready for delicious. I even made my father walk a few miles through Central Park before lunch so we could preemptively battle the calories. When we arrived we gave our name to the hostess to be added to the NoshList (a waitlist app). We waited about twenty minutes and then were lead to two seats at the bar. When I asked our server the specials we got a half complete response with the word "um" used more often than ingredients. He then grabbed the actual list and read it verbatim. As my first foray into Umami-land we opted to order their classic, which has shitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and a parmesan crisp on an egg bun stenciled in vegetable ink with a giant letter U. We also ordered a side of sweet potato fries and a pickle plate.
Pickle plate and sweet potato fries
The decor felt very Los Angeles, actually it felt very Santa Monica, like a deli that had just done a remodel in hopes of getting guests to come in for dinner. Cement floors, red leather booths, black and white photographs and purple walls. It had the ambiance of a chain. Fleischman notes in his New York magazine article that he wants to be known as a restaurant group, not a chain. If that's the case he might want to spend more time, or money, on the atmosphere of each location.
Eight minutes later our burger arrived, cooked first in a CVap oven––which cooks with moist heat at extremely low temperatures––then seared. I asked where our sides were and the server said he didn't know. We cut the burger in half (we were splitting it), and I looked at it. It was a little on the small side and very, very red. I took a bite. "Is this too red?" I asked my father. "This isn't medium rare." He agreed. We sat there looking at each other trying to decide what to do. I called the server over, told him the problem and he took it away. A few minutes later he came back, said the chef apologized and would make it again. I asked if the chef agreed with us, and he told me yes. We had our sides by now so we sampled those. The fries were crispy and seasoned well, and the Umami ketchup, which has a gritty texture like sandpaper, was a nice sweet and tangy compliment. The pickles, fanned out on a too-large white porcelain plate––as if they were something more high end––are reasonably good, but in a town known for pickling they can be much improved.
Our second burger arrived and it was identical to the first, red and raw looking. We both put it down. I had clear raw looking juice running down my hand. "What do you want to do?" Dad asked. I shook my head. I didn't know what to do, but I knew I didn't want to eat it. The server came by to check in. "This looks just like our first burger," I told him. At least these guys are consistent.
The manager came by and explained, very nicely, that medium rare to the Umami kitchen means very, very red, like only the barest on the outside of the burger is brown. Obviously our server is the one who could have elaborated on this, and helped to avoid sending two burgers back. We waited for the third burger, done medium this time, and it was perfect. It was delicious and savory and sweet and delicate. The meat and the sides crunch and tang and meld into great bites. The egg bun is light, and you don't feel like you're getting a dense slab on top of your meat. I've noted it's on the smaller size, so perhaps don't split it. Even if you're a woman.
I'd like to go back and try their other burgers. You can order them without the bun or without the meat and there is a really great sounding veggie burger. My only advice: don't order medium rare.
P.S. If you look close at the Eater Umami Burger post you'll see Dad and I sitting at the left end of the bar (insert fame here).
The classic burger cooked medium rare. If you don't like rare be sure to order it medium or well-done.