Umami Burger Brings Something Savory This Way

You have Adam Fleischman to thank for bringing the Japanese word “umami” into the mainstream consciousness. Before he came along and started the popular Umami Burger chain and secured the word as a trademark—something he was allowed to do because the U.S. trademark office didn't realize what the word meant at the time—”umami” floated in the ether, plucked into use every now and again by chefs, cooking shows and food nerds. It's a wonder it took this long for someone to capitalize on the mystical fifth flavor, the very thing distilled artificially in MSG, and naturally occurring in ripe tomatoes, cheese and mushrooms. In English, the word loosely translates to “savory.” But if you uttered “umami” to any random person in LA right now, they'd likely associate it with Fleischman's burger, not the flavor profile.

If you haven't heard of Fleischman or his chain, you're about to. Umami Burger is poised to break out in unprecedented ways for what was initially regarded as a hipster brand. There are six locations in LA, with about 35 more planned in the next three years, including Anaheim and Laguna Beach. The first OC location opened in the space recently left by the great Valhalla Table at the Camp, with wait times up to an hour.

Fleischman does not squander the term. Despite not training as a chef and not having been to Japan prior to coming up with the concept, he has created what's arguably the most umami-rich sandwich per square inch. The burger patty is purported to have secret ingredients that amp up the umami quotient. Perhaps more important is the way the in-house grind is cooked—medium-rare, but to a browned, crunchy sear in which meat meets griddle. It's also paradoxical in its existence: The patty is juicy but inordinately neat, loosely packed, but with a structural integrity that holds it together just until you take the next bite. The bun, a sweet brioche that shines as though it has been buffed and waxed, is branded with a prominent “U” and toasted patiently to crisp its butter-swiped bottoms. Only In-N-Out does its buns better.

Toppings of shitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes and a rigid disc of oven-crisped Parmesan cheese go in between—the same roll call of ingredients textbooks list as containing the highest concentrations of umami. If you did your homework as Fleischman has, you'd design your umami burger just like this. And for the ketchup, he gets extra credit. The concoction, which looks and smells like regular ketchup, seems bionically enhanced, a sensation your tongue quickly senses with its heightened flavor, an engineered savoriness not normally associated with the condiment. Yet you know it has nothing to do with its sweetness, its saltiness or its sourness: It's all the essence of umami.

As with the ketchup, nearly everything eaten at Umami attempts to manipulate your tongue in one way or another. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold got it right when he called Umami the first burger chain to utilize modernist methods codified by such molecular gastronomists as Nathan Myhrvold. The off-menu tater tots are mind-melded with crispy cheese. The otherwise-standard basket of sweet potato fries is adulterated by a shower of brown sugar. For those items that appear non-umami-enhanced, such as a not-quite-successful attempt at tempura onion rings, there are dipping sauces to compensate. The best sauce is a relatively tame habanero sauce called the Diablo, followed by a decent garlic aoili, then a house relish that uses kombu, a seaweed that harbors more umami.

There are other advances. Fleischman's ahi burger takes what's essentially a chopped tartare and has it griddle-kissed to opaqueness on the outside, then stuffed into a bun with components that would otherwise join it in a sushi roll, including avocado, pickled ginger and wasabi. A tandoori chicken burger is very Indian, aromatic of curry, the messiest sandwich on the menu, oozing black lentil spread and crunchy-cool cucumber in tzatziki. There's also the Greenbird, a turkey patty that revels in green-colored toppings such as avocado, green cheese, and sprouts. The latter eats less guiltily than the so-called Manly Burger, which flaunts beer-Cheddar cheese and lardons.

If you're a vegetarian, you walked in the wrong door (Native Foods is a few yards away), but Umami Burger also happens to produce a surprisingly excellent truffled salad of arugula, beets, almonds and ricotta that should convince you to stay. But by all means, avoid the vegan Earth Burger, whose pasty texture is reminiscent of mushroom-flavored Play-Doh.

Since you're already paying upward of $12 per burger, the better way to eat is the set meals, which also include a starch and an alcoholic drink. The best of those is the one that comes with the Port and Stilton Burger, a wine-and-sandwich combo that possesses a yet-uncoined sensation in the way a ripe cheese stings your mouth and how a goblet of red wine answers it. How about we just call this one “a nice dinner”?


This review appeared in print as “Something Savory This Way Comes: Umami Burger finally opens in OC.”

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