When I am trying to explain the concept of modernist cooking to a friend who has experienced neither encapsulated olives nor edible menus printed with organic ink, I sometimes bring up the burgers concocted by Nathan Myhrvold, a software pioneer who has lately diversified into maximum-tech cooking, among other things. His recipe, which appears in his 2,400-page opus, "Modernist Cuisine," involves sous-vide, liquid nitrogen, a deep-fat fryer and homemade processed cheese, and is not much less complex, I suspect, than the directions for rebuilding a Porsche.
English chef Heston Blumenthal, a major influence on Myhrvold, prescribes a hamburger even more complicated, if less technically involved, that requires the better part of a working week to prepare. No aspect, from the bun to the iceberg lettuce to the grilled onions, is left unexamined. This is what modernist cooking does — retools food in all of its components according to scientific principles.
Modernist principles figure heavily in the food from L.A.'s Umami Burger, whose hamburger patties are also cooked for a long time at low temperature before they are seared off on a griddle. Myhrvold calls Umami Burger the first high-volume modernist restaurant in the world, and although the Beverly Hills restaurant Bazaar moves an awful lot of food on a Saturday night, I tend to agree. Umami burgers make science delicious.
But if you were looking for the garagiste version of a modernist hamburger, a burger as re-imagined by a gear head working alone in his kitchen instead of by a team of technicians in a lab, you might want to investigate Plan Check, Ernesto Uchimura's bar at the northern edge of the Little Osaka neighborhood along Sawtelle Boulevard in West L.A.
Myhrvold's burger features lettuce vacuum-compressed with liquid smoke. Umami Burger has sun-dried tomatoes. Uchimura, who helped develop the Umami Burger menu, uses ketchup leather, which may sound like a euphemism for the buildup around the cap of a Heinz bottle but is actually a translucent sheet of dehydrated house-made ketchup, the condiment at the heart of his namesake Plan Check burger.
The corners of the ketchup leather, cut into the basic size of a Kraft Single, protrude stiffly past the perimeter of the bun. If you manage to wrestle off a bit of the substance, you will discover that it has an odd, glossy consistency closer to vinyl than it is to the fruit leather you may remember from your third-grade lunch box and that it does not dissolve gracefully on your tongue.
You will also notice, however, that the leather has already disappeared into the fissured surface of the griddled patty. By the time you get around to examine the other corners of the leather, you may be mildly surprised to discover that they have already evaporated, drawn into the sandwich as if by osmosis, incorporated into its mass almost at the molecular level.
A microscopically thin layer of crisp, fried cheese, fricco, has also been absorbed into the burger. Shavings of pickle wrap the patty. The feather-light bun, distinctly not made from brioche, is sprinkled with white specks that look like sesame seeds but crunch like breakfast cereal. A fudgy layer of house-made American cheese, which incorporates a subtle, almost indiscernible umami jolt of Japanese kombu seaweed, frosts the patty, but what you are aware of when you bite into the burger is salt, and juice, and the crunchy char of well-cooked meat.
The Plan Check burger has been carefully engineered to resemble the great bar burgers of your youth, in the way that a designer at Ford might try to capture everything you love about a 1968 Mustang in an ultramodern car. For an extra buck, you can get it embellished with smoked blue cheese and sugary pig candy; for an extra two, with crisp rashers of bacon and a sunny-side-up fried egg. But you don't need to. The Plan Check burger is what you would have wanted to have waiting for you after you got off Monsanto's old Adventure Thru Inner Space ride at Disneyland.
But Plan Check isn't quite a replica of a great burger bar — it is a great burger bar, once you get used to the idea of relinquishing control. It was named in honor of the city's Building and Safety office next door and is decorated in the kind of retro-futurist groove in which the font used to describe the specials on the blackboard above the bar is as important as the light fixtures or the patio tables.
The whiskey will be Japanese, but there are probably more Japanese whiskeys here than there are in the rest of the city combined. The soda pop will be made in the back with a dose of the Japanese citrus yuzu, but it will be as fragrant as a $27 jar of imported yuzu marmalade. The crab dip will recall every order of dynamite you have ever encountered in a Torrance expat restaurant but will somehow pack more crab flavor into every bite.
But science cannot improve the flabbyish oysters, as enticing as the idea of cocktail sauce flavored with the spicy Japanese condiment yuzu kosho may sound, and not even summer's dead-ripe produce much helped the odd melon ball and mozzarella salad sprinkled with flavorless prosciutto dust. The vegetable chips may be thin enough to read through but don't taste like much. I cannot endorse a special of fries tossed with cheese and minced pastrami, although I have to admit that they disappeared extremely rapidly from the plate.
You know that subliminal game of triage you tend to play with French fries, picking out the crispiest, most evenly cooked fry, then the next crispiest, until the plate is empty and it is time to pay the check? You can't do that here. The potatoes, fried in melted beef fat and gently dusted with smoked salt, are nearly identical to one another. You know how you gravitate toward the crunchiest piece of fried chicken? At Plan Check, they are all the crunchiest piece of fried chicken, which makes them almost better suited for a role in a chicken sandwich than they are as part of a platter with spicy okra pickles, smoked gravy and a uranium-dense layer of yam. The pot-roasted short ribs were all the best bite. And there are crullers, untouched by technology as far as I can tell, for dessert.
Even modernists, it seems, become sentimental when hot doughnuts are at hand.
A bar with modernist burgers — as re-imagined by a gearhead working solo, rather than a lab full of technicians.
1800 Sawtelle Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 288-6500, plancheckbar.com.
Snacks, $3-$12; burgers, $10-$12; plates, $13-$16; desserts, $6.
Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1 a.m Friday and Saturday. Credit cards accepted. Full bar. Valet and street parking.