Monday, March 16, 2009

The Yumminess of Umami Burger(s)

In the culinary world, a particular buzz word has gotten increasing attention. What's that word? That word is "umami" and it's also the name of one of LA's newest burger joints, Umami Burger, but we'll get into that a little bit later. First, if you're not sure what "umami" is, read on for more information.

For years, we thought our taste buds knew only 4 different tastes: Sweet, Sour, Salty and Bitter; however, recent research has re-brought to light a taste first identified in 1908 by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist. This taste is referred to as “umami” which translates to “yumminess” in Japanese. Dr. Ikeda discovered that the particular taste of umami is particular to dried seaweed and comes from glutamates, a type of amino acid which occur naturally in many foods, including meat, fish, vegetables and dairy products.

Examples of foods that are naturally “umamic” include everything from Parmesan cheese to nori, from clams to dried shitake mushrooms, from tuna to tomatoes, and so much more. Simply, the taste of umami is described as savory, meaty and brothy; however, it’s a subtle taste that combines well with other flavors to give them more of a fullness and richness. As a result of his discovery, Dr. Ikeda went on to create and introduce monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a seasoning in Japan to be used as “flavor enhancers” and is still used worldwide, including the United States.Opened just recently by Adam Fleischman, who also owns Bottle Rock and Vinoteque, the whole concept behind Umami Burger is simply to focus on foods that have a high umami taste index and you certainly can't get more "meaty" or "savory" than having burgers on the menu. Something also worth mentioning is that Adam does all the meat grinding in-house, which means that he can definitely pay attention to quality control. Hearing all the buzz, Robert, one of the Assistant Organizers of my dining group, Pleasure Palate, decided to set up an informal Burger Tasting there. Safe to say that 8 people, 16 burgers (2 of each 8 varieties, cut in quarters), various sides, Mexican cola with real sugar and Cake Monkey desserts made for a fun and filling culinary experience.

Our evening started with an amuse bouche of pickled vegetables that included carrots, daikon radishes, relish, mushrooms and pretty pickle flowers. Sour and tangy flavors were a great way to start.

Before I start talking about the burgers, let's talk sides first. Of the three we got, my absolute favorite and the favorite of the table was the Malt Tempura Onion Rings, which were light, non-greasy and crispy and the perfect accompaniment for a meaty burger. If you're into onion rings, these are a must order.

As we were noshing on the onion rings, the sweet potato chips and the hand cut fries with housemade ketchup, the first 4 of our 8 burgers arrived. The one I gravitated to first was the Sea-Mami Burger, an open face scallop burger with nori and meyer lemon on a toasted bun. OMG! Can I say that again? OMG! This was by far my favorite burger of the night. The scallops were tender and delicate and the nori added the right amount of saltiness.

Next was the Triple Pork Burger, with a patty made of fresh ground pork spiced with chorizo, cob-smoked bacon, aged manchego and pimenton aioli. Spices from the chorizo and the smokiness from the bacon really gave an oomph to this burger and made it one of the favorites of the night. This was also the first time I got to sample both top and bottom of the bun and let me tell you, the bun at Umami Burger is sheer perfection. I loved the fact that it was soft, pillowy and even just a tad sweet. That sweetness balanced well with all the "umami-like" ingredients in the burgers.

Lamb also made it on the menu in the form of their Mideast Burger. Made of sonoma lamb with honey-harissa sauce, it was a good burger, but it needed something else. There was a vibrancy in taste that was missing, especially when compared to the first two burgers we had. The lamb patty needed some stronger spicing or maybe, the sauce could have been a little less honey and slightly more harissa. On its own, without comparison, I would have been fine with it, but compared to the burgers we sampled that night, it wasn't quite up to par and this particular burger wasn't that much of a hit with my dining partners either.

The last burger of that initial quartet was the SoCal Burger with butter lettuce, oven dried tomato, spread, house made processed cheese and caramelized onions. When this was served to us, Adam mentioned to our group it was his take on the In-N-Out Burger. So was the SoCal Burger better than the In-N-Out Burger? Taste-wise, I'd say Yes. Would I drive 45 minutes from my house just to get the SoCal Burger? No, especially if In-N-Out was just 10 minutes away. However, I would make the trek for other burgers on Umami's menu.

At this point, each person in our group had basically eaten one whole burger. Thankfully, we all knew what we were in for that night, so most of us ate very lightly that day and it's good we did. There were still 4 burgers to go and after a little rest, each of them started landing on our table. The first one to do so was the Pork and Stilton Burger with blue cheese and port-caramelized onions. This was actually my second favorite burger of the night. It was just so meaty and rich with strong, intense flavors coming from the blue cheese and the port. Absolutely delish.

Following the Pork and Stilton Burger came the Truffle Burger with Italian truffle cheese and truffle glaze. Most of our table were really excited about trying this burger. For me, the scenario for the Truffle Burger was same for the Lamb Burger. If I just had the Truffle Burger on its own, I probably would have liked it just fine, but after just having had the richly satisfying Pork and Stilton Burger, the Truffle Burger didn't quite compare. The burger was excellent, but somehow, the truffle flavors were too subtle for my palate. I was expecting something more earthy, more woodsy, but didn't get that or perhaps, I'm just missing the boat entirely about what the truffles were supposed to contribute to this burger.

Second to last was the self-titled Umami Burger with grilled onions, fried Parmesan cheese, grilled shiitake mushrooms and an oven dried tomato. Considering that this the was signature burger of the restaurant, I was expecting to be wowed by it, but ended up thinking it was just okay. The flavor of the mushrooms didn't really pull through and the too tart-sourness of the tomato overwhelmed the burger in general. Perhaps, by this point, my taste buds have just been overloaded and couldn't handle much more.

The last burger that we sampled was the Hi-End Chili Burger with Grated Artisan Cheddar. I think most of fellow diners were underwhelmed by this particular Umami offering, but I liked it alot. The chili was excellent. It had good flavor, it didn't have beans and it wasn't oily. The one thing I would have done differently would be to actually amp up the chili with more heat. Do a Spicy Chili Burger version and maybe, even add sliced sliced green chilies, just to give it more pop. As it was, I still enjoyed it, but would have preferred bolder flavors.

Believe it or not, we still had dessert after all that food. We ended up sharing Cake Monkey Desserts, which included Ho Ho's and Red Velvet and Peanut Butter "Ding Dongs." The Peanut Butter "Ding Dong" tasted too artificial, if that makes sense, but the Ho-Ho's and the Red Velvet "Ding Dong" were the perfect sweet ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed almost everything we ate that evening. Of course, I have my favorites as did everyone else at the table. What I really appreciate about Umami Burger is that it's obvious that they care about using quality ingredients for their food and with such a creative variety of burger offerings on their menu, I really think that Umami is destined to be one of LA's go-to places for delicious gourmet burgers.

To see pics, go to:

Umami Burger
850 S. La Brea Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 931-3000

Umami Burger on Urbanspoon


WeezerMonkey said...

I feel like I'm the only person in L.A. who still hasn't been to Umami Burger! Boo!

It looks SO GOOD!

EatTravelEat said...

Wow, those onion rings really do look like a "must try" with the crackly outside! Burgers certainly look great with all the toppings; the Sea-Mami burger looks so good!
I like how they artfully presented the amuse bouche. It's different from your everyday burger place!

pleasurepalate said...

ETE: Those onion rings are definitely one of the or the best I've ever had. :)

WM: I'm sure Umami Burger is going to stick around for awhile so you'll definitely have lots of chances to check it out.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Abby,

Great report, thanks for detailing out the whole menu! :)

I've been meaning to try it, and now thanks to your delectable photos, I'll have to get out there sooner rather than later. :)

pleasurepalate said...

Hey EK: Glad you enjoyed my Umami Burger. I'm definitely looking forward to reading your take on this place. :)