UMAMI BURGER: ONE TASTE TOO MANY
It had to happen, I guess.
Over the last year or so, I have taunted the UK’s mostly feeble burgermeisters with tales of how good their equivalents are in Los Angeles. I add, by way of extra humiliation, a picture of that double chilli cheeseburger at Marty’s to prove that our American cousins just instinctively know how to get these things right. Now, after my recent experience at Umami Burger, I have to come clean and admit that Yanks are just as capable of screwing up beef in a bun as their former colonial overlords.
The Japanese word Umami is often called “the fifth taste” referring to the extra hit of savouriness often found in Asian cooking. Looking at the Umami Burger menu, it obviously also means putting as many weird concoctions on top of a slab of beef as possible in the hope that some of them might actually work. On the evidence of the two burgers we tried, they don’t. Lord they really don’t. The rest wasn’t much cop either, but I’ll get to that.
The branch of Umami Burger on La Brea has valet parking, which probably tells you all you need to know about where they position themselves in the wide church that is the L.A burger market. The room is small but pleasant enough and, despite warnings to the contrary, the service was very friendly as we were shown to two bar stools in a small space off the main dining room.
Umami Burger’s upmarket aspirations are confirmed by both the ingredients and the prices on the short two-sided menu. Prices for burgers range between $9 and $11, which may not seem over the top when you make the conversion to wounded Sterling, but very much sets the place at the gourmet end of things Stateside. So too do the ingredients, with truffle oil, oven dried tomatoes, ricotta and edemame making a thankfully rare appearance on a burger menu.
Sybil chose the eponymous burger, while I went for the pleasant sounding if slightly oddly named “Manly” Burger (not too manly I hoped. That was one extra salty taste I really didn’t want to try) along with sides of “Malt Liquor Tempura Onion Rings” and fries, which came with a selection of condiments.
The dips arrived first served in small, white spoons and the food followed moments afterwards. At first glance, they looked the part and came in a glistening brown bun that had been lightly toasted. However, lifting the lid, we found that the light of what I am sure is excellent, carefully sourced beef has been hidden under a bushel of caramelised onions, roasted tomatoes and slivers of slightly stewed mushrooms. Oh, and there was a slice of over salty fried cheese in there as well, just to make sure you couldn’t taste much else. The Manly Burger didn’t look a whole heap better. What elegance the layer of onion strings may have added was spoiled by the fact the beer cheddar cheese had been placed on only half the burger, leaving the rest to dribble towards the plate where it had congealed like a Dali clock.
We stared at them for a while and then took a bite. Now here’s the thing. If you are a burger a joint and you tell folk that you will cook their pattys medium rare unless asked otherwise, you should be able to serve them medium rare on a pretty consistent basis. Obviously that is not the case here as both of ours were well (over) done and we saw other tables returning their own meals. We also pondered on sending them back, but by now the place was heaving and we suspected the wait might be a long one. We also suspected that, given all the odd little toppings, it probably wouldn’t make much difference in any case.
I was pleased to see that Heston Blumenthal’s greatest contribution to cuisine, the triple cooked chip continues its move towards global dominance by appearing on US menus. I am not so sure he would have been so glad to see the wretched specimens we were served, which made up for lack of crunch with an extra helping of grease. The onion rings were better and, although the coating looked like no tempura batter I have ever encountered, the insides were sweet and retained a nice bite.
Twenty or so minutes after we arrived, we paid the pretty hefty bill. It knocked on the door of $40 when they included our drinks and tax and we included a decent tip. A lot to pay to prove that not all is happy go lightly in Burgerland USA and enough to make me declare to Sybil, as we left, “I am glad we found street parking”
In truth, however, they could offer to send a cab around to collect us and I would refuse the kind offer. I am afraid Umami offers lots of tastes, but that of a great burger just isn’t one of them