My friend, Michele, and I had been talking about going to Umami Burger for months, as it was one of the restaurants with good reviews and positive word-of-mouth from one of her friends. There was even a little review of it in Bon Appetit Magazine. Since umami is the new (recently re-discovered) flavor we can taste, along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour, I was looking forward to seeing what it was all about.
The umami taste is caused by the detection, by taste receptors in the mouth, of a couple of forms of glutamic acid that are found in meat, cheese, stock and other protein-heavy foods. It is naturally occurring in soy sauce, fish sauce, parmesan cheese, anchovies, mushrooms and ripe tomatoes. Also in seafood, such as lobster, crab and shrimp. Since I love all of those foods, I figured Umami Burger would fast forward me to Taste Heaven.
Michele and I had been to the Tasteful Pictures Exhibit at the Getty Museum, which had photographs taken by the first food photographers back in the 1880’s. We had walked around the Getty for hours and were tired and hungry, so we decided Umami Burger was where we would eat.
After valeting the car, we walked into this small restaurant, with west-facing floor to ceiling windows and a row of about 10 small, close together tables in front of the windows. A host/server greeted us and led us along the row of tables and back and to the left into a small room about the size of a big walk-in closet. It was empty, with dim overhead lighting and an 18-inch shelf around three walls, with chairs pushed underneath. The walls were bare, nary a painting, photo, mirror or window to be seen. The host said we could sit where we liked. Well, the idea of sitting in a dim closet facing a bare wall didn’t appeal to me much, so I told him we wanted to sit out in the other room. He seemed surprised that we refused to sit where he wanted us to sit. Do you suppose when his grandma comes to visit that he makes her sit in a dim closet facing a blank wall to eat? Maybe for him, that’s normal.
So, awkwardly, he led us to the end table nearest the kitchen. It was late afternoon and the sun was screaming in through the west facing window. All of the windows, except the one behind this table, had sunscreens, so the person sitting facing the window would have had their retinas burned out. There was one empty table in the middle of the row, so I said we wanted to sit there. By this time, the host was more flustered than ever, so he seated us at the middle table.
So we sat…and sat…finally he brought us a menu. We ordered our water. We sat…and sat. He brought the water and took our order. We sat…and sat…and sat. We saw that people who were already seated when we arrived were just getting their orders. I remind you, I was starving. I began to think that the host/server was also the chef, prep cook and line cook.
We had ordered a Umami Burger ($10), a Manly Burger ($10), Hand Cut Fries, Triple-Cooked ($3.50), Malt Liquor Tempura Onion Rings ($3), and a Truffle Beet Salad ($6). Ten dollars for a burger, when I could go to Burger King and get a fantastic Double Cheeseburger for $1.59. It better be the best burger I have ever eaten.
Our Truffle Beet Salad came first and was very pretty, surrounded by a tangle of arugula with a sprinkle of toasted sliced almonds. The beets were a white variety and really confused my palate by tasting like pale cooked pear. There was lots of arugula (which I love), but, if you look at the photograph, those minute drips and little rivulet of white stuff on the almost tasteless beets was all the dressing on the plate. That arugula felt mighty dry after a while.
Finally, we were served the burgers, onion rings and 8 fries. Yes, just 8, because they were about 1-inch square and 5 inches long, and stacked up Lincoln Log style on the plate. I grabbed one of the fries first and as I dipped it in the ketchup, squeezing it slightly, oil gushed out onto the plate, like water out of a sponge. The fry was pale white, not browned at all, spongy and totally saturated with greasy oil. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how they got it like that. I guess if they put the raw fry in a plastic bag with some oil and cooked it sous vide for 24 hours at 140 degrees F, this would be the result. It was probably the most disgusting food item I have ever encountered. You can see a photo of the fries on the Umami website.
The Malt Liquor Tempura Onion Rings were also pale white; the coating was also oil soaked. So gross.
The photo at the top of this post is my Manly Burger, with Beer-Cheddar Cheese, Smoked Salt Onion Rings and Bacon Lardons. It had such a beautiful presentation, and phenomenal lack of taste. Can you see that the top of the bun is about an inch wider than the bun bottom? That is so weird. I even put ketchup and mustard on it, to no avail. Michele had the original Umami Burger (above, cut in half), with Cheese, Roasted Tomatoes and Mushrooms. She said it was ok. In retrospect, I think maybe my taste buds were so coated with grease, that they couldn’t taste anything. Or, in concert with the rest of our dishes, it had little taste and a lot of grease. Think about it…grease from the meat, the melted cheese, and grease from the deep-fried breaded onion rings on the burger.
I feel bad telling you all these unsavory things that occurred at Umami Burger. I mean, I’ve been a restaurant manager, so I know that on the chef’s night off, when the line cook calls in sick, the dishwasher is the only guy you’ve got to man the stove. It happens. So to be fair, here are other reviews, scathing to loving. You decide.
About a week later, I was on the road and stopped at Islands Restaurant in the Manhattan Mall for dinner. I had the biggest, juiciest, most delicious burger and the most perfect browned, crisp fries (all you can eat) that I have ever had. Those fries were crisp until the last moment and left no oil signature on the plate whatsoever. My server virtually hovered over me, making sure I had everything I wanted. Need I say more?