The Fifth Taste
Umami Burger is a rapidly expanding chain of hip burger joints, and the secret to its success is a 20th Century culinary discovery
When Umami Burger bills itself as featuring umami, “the fifth taste” — the others being, salty, sour, bitter and sweet — it comes out sounding a little like shtick. After all, how many people remember learning about umami in school?
But restaurant founder Adam Fleischman is totally serious. And so is umami.
Whether or not you’ve heard about the word and the savory, satisfying taste it describes, umami has become a widely accepted part of the culinary world. In fact, it was first identified in the early 20th century by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda.
The secret to what makes soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, roasted tomatoes and mushrooms so yummy, he found, was that each contains a high level of glutamate, an amino acid. He called the taste umami, which is Japanese for “delicious.”
How appropriate, then, that the term should serve as the namesake for what has quickly become a successful avant-garde burger chain with global ambitions. The Studio City location, on a hip strip of Ventura Boulevard, is one of 13 in Southern California — including one in Thousand Oaks; another has opened in San Francisco. Plans call for Umami Burger to be part of the new amenities at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal as part of a makeover there as well.
One look at the interior of Umami Valli, as the family-friendly site in Studio City is known, and it’s clear that this will be no ordinary burger experience. It is luxurious, sophisticated and totally cool. The ceiling curves stylishly; large mirrors hang from one wall of the small, narrow eatery; and chandeliers add a little glitter.
But what really gets your blood flowing — if you choose not to eat at the counter facing the bottles at the bar — are the bright red, super-high-backed chairs on wheels that make sitting at your table pure fun.
The menu itself is focused, and that’s a good thing. As it is, burger fans must test their willpower or risk eating themselves into oblivion.
The gourmet burgers here are creative and well-conceived, subtly mixing exotic flavors and textures without any of them being overpowering. Consider the classic Umami Burger, which harmonizes shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions and a slow-roasted tomato, with a Parmesan crisp — a thin, crunchy wafer that’s a cheesy revelation hidden between the layers.
Then there’s the Hatch Burger, with its four types of green chiles and house cheese. Like seemingly everything else at Umami — which stamps its signature “U” on every bun — it melts in your mouth and doesn’t come on too strong.
Even where a dish brings a little zing — as with the Ahi Tuna Burger (crushed avocado, daikon sprouts, pickled ginger, wasabi flakes) — it’s never too much, leaving your taste buds plenty of reason to rejoice.
Come prepared to be surprised or at least open-minded enough to try hard-to-find combinations. Truffled ricotta on a mushroom and edamame patty? Bacon lardons together with beer-cheddar cheese and smoked-salt onion strings? It’s all here.
“When it comes to food, I don’t follow the rules,” Fleischman said. “We’ll put unusual stuff on burgers if it works flavor-wise.”
In the past, that’s meant experimenting with ingredients like sweetbreads (innards), duck and tempura anchovies. Even he is willing to go only so far, however.
“There’s stuff we haven’t tried to put on, like weird fruits and things,” he said.
Of course, no burger is complete without a proper sidekick. Start with the cheesy tots. These roly-poly cylinders are infused with cheesy goodness and sprinkled on the outside with just the right amount of salt. They were on the menu during our visit, but even if they’re not, ask; you’ll get them, Fleischman promises.
The sweet potato fries and Truffle Beet Salad give vegetarian friends good reasons to tag along, too.
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