The first New York branch of the popular Los Angeles-based Umami Burger chain flung open its doors in Greenwich Village this summer, and judging by the three-hour opening-week waits and general frenzy of excited burger nerds, it’s about time. In a nutshell, umami, or the elusive fifth taste (after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter), is the savory flavor sensation associated with foods like beef, soy sauce, and Parmesan cheese. And Umami Burger owner Adam Fleischman is its biggest fan. What Colonel Sanders is to eleven herbs and spices, Fleischman is to umami. Like the Colonel, Fleischman’s also a bit of a marketing whiz. He sells a line of umami products including umami dust and umami spray on his website, and apparently he’s never been spotted in public while not wearing an Umami Burger T-shirt.
Flaunting his brand and the umami lifestyle—as well as talking smack about Shake Shack to Adam Platt
—hasn’t exactly endeared Fleischman to local burger purists and umami skeptics. But these West Coast burger missionaries have to follow their bliss. And the fact of the matter is that the Umami burger lives up to the hype. The signature Original comes on a bun that’s properly soft and squishy yet oddly clammy to the touch, as if it had been reheated like a 7-Eleven microwave ham-and-cheese. But its loosely packed six-ounce patty is abundantly juicy and beautifully cooked with a fantastic crust. It’s painted, dusted, and sprayed with assorted -Umami-brand products like a backstage beauty-pageant contestant, then festooned with a veritable Who’s Who of umami heavyweights: roasted tomato, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, truffly housemade ketchup, and a Parmesan crisp. The well-proportioned final result is superrich and weirdly meaty and pretty much like no other burger you’ve ever tasted. Actually, we take that back. It kind of reminds us, in a way, of Daniel Boulud’s $32 DB Bistro Moderne burger. That early-aughts masterwork, if you recall, consists of a sirloin patty stuffed with braised short-rib meat, black truffles, and foie gras, the whole thing topped with confited tomato and served on a Parmesan bun. Practically screams umami burger, right? You might even say that what Fleischman has done—and done brilliantly—is create a DB burger for the masses, tossing out luxury ingredients in favor of tasty food science.
Aside from the five or so other beef burgers (we’re partial to the Hatch chile with housemade American cheese), there isn’t a whole lot else to jump up and down and clap your hands about at Umami Burger. The turkey and veggie “un-beef” burgers are fine, but seem beside the point. The room feels generic, managing to be simultaneously dark and gloomy and also boisterously loud. And the cocktails will win no awards. One thing that especially drives Umami customers to distraction is the restaurant’s belief that French fries and onion rings are appetizers and ought to be served as such. It’s like going to a steakhouse and getting a baked potato a half-hour before your T-bone arrives. Looked at another way, though, this is merely an attempt to get you to focus on the glory that is the Umami burger. A star of its stature shouldn’t have to share a stage with anyone.