432 6th Ave., New York, NY 10011 (map); 212-677-8626; umami.com
Cooking method: CVAP oven and finished on a griddle
Short Order: The Original is not worth the hype; try the Manly Burger instead
Want Fries With That? Not bad by any means, but skippable
Price: The Original, $12; Manly Burger, $12; fries: $3.50
Here it comes. A beloved, cult burger chain from the West Coast announces the imminent opening of its first New York City location. Anticipation builds. Food blogs speculate endlessly, poring over every minute construction detail. It's an In-N-Out Burger, right? We should be so lucky! No, it's that other West Coast cult burger spot, Umami Burger, which opened its first location (of many many more planned) this summer on the lower reaches of Sixth Avenue in the West Village. Maybe we're lucky, though. If this were an In-N-Out, I doubt we'd ever fully recover.
New Yorkers can be territorial bunch, and its a rare outsider who can come to town and dodge the sharpened knives of local eaters. So Umami chief Adam Fleischman may have stepped on his sword when, as part of a fawning New York magazine article, he said, "NY has some OK burgers," and threw down the gauntlet. This is simply not done. (Imagine a woman fainting and my monocle falling to the ground.)
In that same article, Fleischman described how he developed his umami-rich burger:
Fleischman spent two months in his home kitchen, obsessively mixing and remixing seaweeds, cheeses, and stinky dried fish. He discovered that umami-rich ingredients don't work when you blend them into the beef, so he developed natural flavorings (Umami Master Sauce and Umami Dust), which he used to umamify the patty after it was gently precooked in the CVap oven.
It appears that in Fleischman's myopic quest to ensure that every classic American fast food is umamified, he has—to borrow a phrase I heard too often in law school— lost the seaweed forest for the kelp.
If the Original ($12) is the pinnacle of umamification, then we've got problems. While it more than succeeds in terms of advertised "umami" flavor, with a deeply flavored shiitake mushroom, overly sweet, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, house ketchup, and Parmesan crisp that quickly softens, the burger has little else to offer. Lacking anything to balance the toppings, like mustard or a pickle, the burger was boring and one-note. Surprisingly, I did not hate the sweet bun (almost like a Hawaiian roll) stamped with a distinct "U" (in case you were wondering, it does not stand for "underwhelming").
Let's talk about this patty. The sear is an admirable deep brown, but ultimately lacks depth. Though formed in a ring mold, the thin, pre-formed six-ounce patty barely holds together. While this is fine for a steak or a roast, it does ground beef no favors. It's hard to ignore when as soon as I picked my burger up for a first taste, half the patty escaped from the bun and landed on my plate.
Update (10/18/13): Since this review was posted, a representative from Umami Burger reached out and informed me that, despite the legend as published in the New York Magazine article I cited, Umami Burger has not used a CVAP oven since "at least 2011." Instead, they now use a custom plancha to cook the burgers. I'm not sure why the burgers have the texture issues I encountered, but the patties have fallen apart on multiple visits.
Once (if) you can get past these issues, the Manly Burger ($12) is your best option. Served with beer-cheddar cheese, bacon lardons, smoked-salt onion strings, house ketchup, and mustard spread, it has the traditional elements of a burger, and is far better for it. Though the same issues plague the patty, overall it's better balanced and far more satisfying than Umami's namesake.
Sides are a mixed bag. Under no circumstances should you order the "artisan crafted" fried pickle spears ($4) with jalapeño ranch. Having lived in the South, I've been on the fried pickle beat for a long time, and there's no legitimate argument for spears above chips. All you get is underseasoned batter and a big bite of hot pickle. As a chip, fried pickles are divine; as a spear, they're useless. Likewise, the smashed potatoes ($4.50) with roasted garlic aioli, have been done better elsewhere (try them with the burger at Roberta's).
Thin fries ($3.50) evoke a classic fast food fry, but the four dipping sauces arriving in fussy spoonfuls are forgettable.
I know I'm in the minority on Umami Burger, but after multiple visits it just doesn't hold up against similar burgers in its price range (hello again Brindle Room) or even the far superior, and slightly cheaper Shake Shack. Ultimately, umami is a component of a whole rather than an end in itself. It doesn't succeed as the entire vision. Like someone overloading a dish with bacon or fiery chilies, the end result is one-note and, frankly, misses the point.
About the author: Noah Arenstein is a practicing lawyer, freelance writer, and co-founder and managing editor of Real Cheap Eats, a site dedicated to finding the best dishes under $10 throughout NYC. He can also be found making "Global Jewish Sandwiches" for Scharf & Zoyer. Follow him on Twitter @ChiefHDB.