America is full of contradictions. At a time when Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" is a bestseller, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer has just written an exhortation against the eating of meat ("Eating Animals"), and vegans are clamoring for chefs to accommodate them at top restaurants, the country is also becoming even more burger-obsessed than it already was.
In-N-Out Burger, Southern California's own classic drive-in burger chain, appears on many foodies' Top 10 lists. Mozza's Nancy Silverton and chef Amy Pressman are bringing their burgers to the Farmers Market. And just about every top-tier restaurant has a burger -- with or without short ribs, with or without foie gras -- on the menu.
Earlier this year Adam Fleischman, a former partner in Culver City's Bottle Rock, opened Umami Burger on La Brea Boulevard. It's a tiny place with only a handful of tables, a modest menu of burgers and a few sides -- and no wine-and-beer license, the better to bring your own. With most burgers, including the signature Umami Burger, under $10, hand-cut fries and homemade ketchup, it's no surprise the place caught fire with L.A.'s dedicated burger hounds.
To handle the overflow crowd, Fleischman unveiled a second Umami burger this fall in the former Cobras & Matadors space in partnership with Cobras' founder, Steven Arroyo. November brought Umami Urban in Hollywood, and an Umami truck is on its way. So Fleischman is now the proprietor of a mini-chain of burger restaurants.
His idea is appealing -- a grown-up burgers-only joint. Basically, I like Umami Burger, but it's hardly the second coming. I find a little too much sweetness in the bun and in the toppings for my palate. But for the occasional indulgence, it's a great place to grab a quick bite without breaking the bank.
The concept is as stripped down in its way as In-N-Out. Just the burgers, ma'am. But these are much more than basic burgers. The meat is better. The buns too. And at least at Umami Burger Nos. 2 and 3, you can add in a hip urban ambience.
His secret weapon? Umami, the fifth taste, according to the Japanese, that indefinable something that makes flavors ring like a major chord.
A familiar location
Let's visit the Los Feliz locale, which has been given a new look and configuration that makes the space much more functional than it ever was as Cobras & Matadors or before that, Arroyo's short-lived communal steakhouse concept. Remember the clotheslines for clipping orders that ran above the tables? Probably not.
The bar, banquettes run under glossy cream and green tiles, and generously sized tables occupy the middle of the room. A vintage neon sign reading CHOW FUN winks out a greeting. A shelf that runs high along the walls displays wooden Japanese folk dolls and glass jugs etched with the Umami logo -- two halves of a bun or a pair of lips? You decide. Add in cryptic Japanese writing on the wall, well, cryptic to anybody who doesn't read Kanji. Populate the restaurant with folks from this eclectic neighborhood, and take away the fear that the bill will be more than anybody can really afford, and the result is a useful and fun locale for wolfing down burgers in imaginative guises.
Burgers are quite the bargain. Each looks picture-perfect -- shiny brown bun, rounded at the top; thick, juicy patty. They're on the petite side, actually, which is a good thing. (If you're really hungry, you can always have two.)
And the beef is cooked to a perfect medium-rare. The kitchen has the technique down: browned on the grill and finished off in the oven. The cut surface of the bun is slightly crisped.
At Umami Burger, a plain burger is not an option. But before you delve into the pleasures of the Manly Burger or the Hatch Burger, it's best to start with the signature Umami, topped with cheese, roasted tomatoes and mushrooms. Flavors are rich and round, and it has a sensation of sweetness, pleasant really. I might prefer a little more crunch somewhere -- lettuce, a raw onion, but that would introduce contrast where obviously none is wanted. The idea is to subsume the flavors to the whole.
And then there are the variations on that theme. The Manly Burger with cheddar cheese, bacon lardons, fried onion strings and smoked salt. That works. The Hatch Burger features four kinds of chile peppers and roasted garlic aioli, but the peppers, curiously, don't offer much heat. It's very good, but it would be better with more firepower.
The Stilton and Port burger seems to mimic the flavors burger hounds find so intriguing in the Father's Office burger -- especially that blue cheese. But if you're talking balance, the Stilton dominates and the gobbets of cheese taste greasy as they begin to melt. Your palate feels smeared.
Not everything is a slam-dunk then, particularly not the turkey burger, which, despite its sweet relish, is dry, dry, dry.
However, the triple pork burger, which, like Suzanne Goin's version at Tavern, includes chorizo (and in this case, some applewood-smoked bacon too) is really delicious. With Manchego cheese melted inside, this is the one I'd come back for again and again. Though the lamb burger sounds tempting, in reality the lamb patty could use more fat or maybe a different cut of meat to give it more flavor and make it less dry.
I have to fess up: I didn't taste the veggie burger on offer as a special. I leave it to others to judge how well that works. Me, I'm wondering why I'd ever eat a faux burger. I'd rather have my vegetables straight with some grilled bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil on the side.
What about the fries, you might ask. Impressively thick-cut ones come five or six to an order, served with a little jar of house-made ketchup for dipping, but the thinner fries are crisper. And best? The sweet potato fries, crisp and caramelized at the edges.
As for sides, how can a plate of pickles cost half the price of a burger? And what you get is just a few bites: tiny button mushrooms, julienned carrots and two lengthwise slices of cucumber, all very vinegary. The green salad is pleasant, though, nicely dressed in a tomato-cilantro vinaigrette.
Desserts -- and this is where they definitely have it over any of the other burger joints -- include small frosted dainties from Cake Monkey. The one to get is the chocolate and cream version, which tastes like a miniature Twinkie. The ice cream sandwiches are the best in town, two gooey meringue "cookies" sandwiching either butter pecan ice cream or chocolate-chocolate chip. And finally, if you haven't had a root beer float in years, this is the place to get one.
If In-N-Out rules for the classic drive-through burger, Umami makes a strong case for the embellished burger.