Mondays present multiple challenges across many arenas, and one of them is to find a quality restaurant that is open for dinner. On a national holiday observed on a Monday, the initial assumption would be that any restaurant open for dinner would be slammed with patrons not wanting to deal with meal preparation on top of unpacking and decompressing after a long getaway weekend. We expected many more people on the freeways along our way towards Umami Burger but were surprised by relatively mild traffic. That the parking meters weren’t being enforced was another bonus. When we walked in there was no line. All omens were good for this visit.
Now it’s time for a history lesson. Umami is the fifth taste, after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. For over two thousand years there were believed to be just the four tastes, even though the sensation of umami is natural and attributed to the glutamic acids in foods themselves and developed through cooking processes. Mushrooms, tomatoes, seaweed, meat, and aged Parmesan cheese are some of the more commonly recognized examples of umami. Clearly these food items have been around for long before the last century, but we can thank Professor Kikunae Ikeda for uncovering the rationale behind this fifth flavor in 1908. Glutamate is the chemical compound these foods have in common. Professor Ikeda later went on to patent concentrated glutamic acids in the form of monosodium glutamate, or MSG. While we know that large quantities of MSG are unhealthy, one cannot deny how tasty a meal can be when it is added. Thus we call this fifth flavor “umami,” coined by Professor Ikeda, meaning “pleasant savory taste” or simply “yummy.”
Umami Burger is definitely “umami” in the yummiest sense of the word. There were many starters to choose from including fried items and fresh salads, but we began our evening simply with two sides, the tempura onion rings and truffle fries. Thick cut, hand dipped, and malt battered, the onion rings were noticeably fresh and never once near a freezer during prep. The onions were sweet and not cooked to sliminess, leaving just a bit of a sinking bite amidst the crisp, light batter. Without a sprinkling of salt, these rings were yearning to be dipped in the trio of sauces, but be prepared for the range of spiciness. The garlic aioli was very thick and creamy with a pleasantly mild garlic flavor. The jalapeño ranch, despite the fear sent into the hearts of some tastebuds upon hearing that J word, had zero heat and pure flavor. August, typically the one to avoid spicy foods, particularly enjoyed the opportunity to taste the jalapeño without any burn. The diablo sauce, on the other hand, was all for Zach, being that it was made with habanero peppers. If you like heat, you will be happy. With no need for extra dippers were the thin cut truffle fries, generously tossed in a creamy truffle cheese sauce. They weren’t overly truffly nor cheesy, but almost all fries had at least a smidgen of goodness on them. Some fries were particularly coated, so the crispiness resulting from the thin cut helped to keep the textural integrity intact.
With such variety, we had to sample and share three burgers between the two of us. To be fair to the restaurant, of course, clearly not because there were too many good things to choose from. We evenly split the Throwback, featuring two seared beef patties, white cheddar cheese, miso mustard, Umami house ketchup, soy pickles, and sliced onions. It was like the classic as described in that infectious song marketed by the chain with golden arches, but immeasurably better. Never mind the tasty char on the burger and lightly grilled bun, as some time on the flame adds a lot of flavor to already quality beef and bread. The variety of condiments created a combination of flavors that explored the broad depths of umami flavor, including savory, tangy, and slightly sweet. But the fresh pickles and sweet onion, you mustn’t request them to be omitted. Their sweet crispiness brought some much needed texture to what otherwise would be a very meaty cheeseburger.
August the California girl tends to gravitate towards menu items with some variation of California in the name. Typically that means a combination of bacon, sprouts, avocado, and/or Swiss cheese, but Umami’s Cali burger had none of these. Instead, the single patty was adorned with butter lettuce, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, house spread, and “Cali cheese” – a high quality white American cheese that gooed like brie over the patty. The nicely treated tomato and onions added slightly acidic, slightly sweet layers to provide contrast to the handsome savor of the grilled beef and bun.
The Sunny Side burger, aka Truffle Especiale, caught Zach’s eye for the few albeit quality ingredients stacked together in a novel way. Not just cheese, special sauce, and lettuce sat beneath that beautifully fried egg, oh no. Parmesan frico (a cheese crisp), truffle butter, and truffled arugula gelled with the burst yolk. The Parmesan provided a bite while the arugula brought freshness, and all together the flavors balanced so that overall it was not an overwhelmingly truffled burger.
We did not have any alcoholic beverages this evening, although we might on the next visit because the menu was inventive, diverse, and tempting. We did not have any dessert either, since we learned that they are not made in house; no offense at all towards the dessert maker, but we went to Umami to blog about Umami. We had a very enjoyable dinner but must leave you with a warning: cut your burger in half. This is for two reasons. First, the burgers are large, so they’re just a hair easier to handle when halved. Second, the restaurant’s recommended temperature for your beef burgers is medium rare, but no matter how you order it, check to see it was cooked to your liking. If you are picky about meat temperature, communicate your preferences clearly to best enjoy your yummy meal.
Hushpuppies are so simple, they can almost be made with what’s already in your kitchen. With this recipe they turn out light and savory, but it’s the dipping sauce that puts each bite over the top. The sauce is balanced perfectly between tangy and zingy (we would definitely not go as far as to say “spicy” because it’s spiced, but not hot).
Makes about 2 dozen hushpuppies
• For the dipping sauce:
1/4 cup of truffled honey dijon mustard
1/4 cup of mayonnaise
Combine the two ingredients, blending thoroughly. Let sit in the refrigerator until time to serve.
• For the hushpuppies
1 gallon of peanut oil (for frying)
1 cup of coarsely ground Bob’s Red Mill corn meal
1 cup of sweet white onion, diced
3/4 cup of buttermilk
1/2 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
2 tsp. of kosher salt
1 1/2 tsp. of baking powder
Heat the peanut oil to 365 degrees F in a deep fryer. In a bowl, combine the corn meal, flour, salt, and baking powder, and mix until evenly distributed or put through a sifter. Mix the egg and buttermilk together, then add this to the dry ingredient mixture. Fold in the chopped onion and shredded cheddar.
With two spoons, form small masses of hushpuppy mix and drop into the hot oil.
Fry for about 4 minutes until nicely golden brown. Drain on paper towels before serving with the creamy truffled dijon dip.
Happy Bastille Day! July 14 is French National Day, or La Fête Nationale, commemorating the beginnings of modern day France. To honor the country, we are going all-out French today. It required a drive to San Francisco, but traffic wasn’t bad and the weather was beautiful. Our two destinations of a restaurant and a bakery were across the street from each other, so we enjoyed a leisurely brunch/lunch without the pressure of driving across the city. Chez Maman West of Hayes Valley, the youngest member of the Chez Maman family including Chez Papa and Papito, has a broad menu almost entirely French-inspired, save a section of fresh Mexican dishes. The basics of French cuisine are, well, to follow the basics; simple ingredients, cooked with exemplary technique by a knowledgeable chef. Today we were enamored by the food from Chef Russell Cab’s kitchen.
We split an appetizer of baked Camembert as evenly as we could, but it was difficult because we both liked it a lot. The extremely creamy and gooey cheese was baked with some of the rind, so there was an earthiness and musk to the flavor. It was balanced by the subtle sweetness of the buttery roasted garlic and mixed greens with a light vinaigrette. The toast points for scooping up the cheese were crispy but not rock-hard, thankfully, or else the effort of eating would have overcome the balance of textures.
Oeuf cocotte, or “egg in a pot,” is a poached egg dish with cream, and August wanted to try Chez Maman’s version with meaty smoked salmon and goat cheese. Neither salmon nor goat cheese are pleasing to Zach, but he had to admit that the smokiness here drew him in. That which helped his palate further was the mildness of the goat cheese; more pungent, and it would have overtaken the plate. The rich yolk melded with the cream to enhance the smooth, creamy flavor of the tender egg, which was complemented so well by the salmon and goat cheese. Balance is a prominent theme in French cooking – some ingredients work together only when combined in the right amounts.
If you are a truffle fan, you cannot pass up the mac and cheese. Likewise, if you’re a mac and cheese fan looking for something different, this will hit the spot For the price, you’ll be amazed at the quantity of truffle oil and thick truffle shavings mixed with al dente noodles and Gruyere cheese. Gooey, creamy, savory, and earthy, it was not a pretty looking plate but it was “pretty for your mouth,” as per Zach. The truffle flavor was strong, but the dash of nutmeg did not go unnoticed as it balanced the intense truffle.
The savoyarde crepe had Swiss and Raclette cheese, fingerling potatoes, prosciutto, and cornichons; a sharp salad with tomato tapenade offered contrasting green flavor. Zach enjoyed the mildly tangy cheeses, particularly the Raclette which to him was like an extremely mild blue cheese. The term Raclette originates in the French racler, “to scrape”; this cheese is used for melting, and traditionally one would scrape the melted cheese off of a wedge after it had been heated by an open fire. The potatoes were slightly sweet and tender in this crepe, while the thick prosciutto provided texture, something to chew, and a salty element to work with the potatoes and cheese. Made with a buckwheat crepe, this plate is both gluten-free and delicious.
We didn’t think we were going to get two desserts when we first came into the restaurant, but hey, it’s Bastille Day! The cinnamon pain perdu, a favorite here, was served with marinated raspberries and strawberries, apple syrup, and chantilly. The base of the dessert was essentially French toast, with a thin crispy crust that resulted from grilling the bread. The apple syrup gave a teensy bit of tart, while the mild sweetness of the chantilly smoothed out the bright fruits. The crème brûlée had a rich, velvety texture and vanilla flavor with visible vanilla bean scrapings under the candy crunch top. It was not overly sweet, and August thought it tasted close to homemade vanilla marshmallows.
What makes certain dining experiences more memorable are the chance encounters with charismatic others, be they restaurant staff or fellow patrons, and today we had the pleasure of meeting two of each. Manager David was conversational and generous in his kindness. Server Sophia is young but waits like a seasoned professional, so to find out that it was only her second day on the floor was surprising! At the table next to us were Roger and Jordan, who told us about Check, Please! Bay Area. Coincidentally, we got home just in time to catch an episode of it on PBS! So we owe a big merci to all who had a part in memorializing our meal, not just for the food but for the connections made as well.