2184 Union Street, San Francisco CA 94123 (map); 415-440-UMAMI; umamiburger.com
Cooking Method: Griddled
Short Order: San Francisco should be pretty excited to have this purveyor of unique, thoughtfully-composed, and really tasty burgers on the local scene
Want Fries with That? They're not bad, but why not split a second burger with a dining companion instead?
Prices: Umami Burger, $11; Bacon-Wrapped Scallop Burger, $15; thin fries, $3.50; tempura onion rings, $4.50
Umami Burger already had five locations in and around Los Angeles, but owner Adam Fleischman's grand expansion plans truly blasted off on October 10, when the first store outside the City of Angels opened up in San Francisco. This is the burger that our own Damon Gambuto called, "A gourmet burger that is both true to the form and deliciously original." GQ's Alan Richman simply declared it the Burger of the Year. No wonder I take such pleasure in pronouncing the following: Welcome to the Bay Area, Umami Burger!
One of the advantages of a chain concept is that it travels well, and not even two weeks into the new Umami Burger's existence, I really like what they're serving. Amazingly, on the signature Umami Burger, each of the many toppings—sauteed shiitake mushrooms, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, and a frico of parmesan cheese—manages to shine through in the final product. Yet the whole combination still honors the beef. It's good beef too, a loosely packed, six-ounce patty of house-ground meat that develops a caramelized griddle-skin on the outside.
And if the move up the California coast has induced any expansion pains, it doesn't show in their cooking. All of our burgers came out red in the center with a mixture of liquid from the toppings and the meat already pooling beneath the bottom bun when they arrived at the table. After eating my own burger and sampling everyone else's, I seriously considered ordering seconds.
Each of the Umami Burger locations offers a unique menu creation. In San Francisco, they've come up with the Bacon-Wrapped Scallop Burger, though the name can be a little misleading because it's really a scallop patty topped with a piece of pork belly. A bit less attractive than their beef burgers, I expected a rubbery jaw workout, but the patty actually had plenty of give. Topped with a chili sauce and a yuzu aioli, the rich and slightly sweet combination definitely hits the mark for the (gasp!) non-beef-inclined, or simply for those who want a change of pace.
As Damon alluded to in his original review, the sides at Umami Burger are a bit less impressive. The skinny fries, though crisp, needed more salt and didn't strike us as much better than pretty good. The tempura onion rings simply didn't boast much flavor in the breading, and left behind a layer of watery oil that had each of us passing on the last one in the dish.
Aside from the scallop patty, Umami Burger owner Adam Fleischman has made a few other tweaks to the San Francisco menu. The offering known as the SoCal Burger in Los Angeles (butter lettuce, tomato spread, housemade American cheese, caramelized onions) has been renamed the Cali Burger for San Francisco. Our waiter also reported that all the beef for the San Francisco burgers comes from local purveyors.
More notably, though Umami Burger is still bringing snack cakes up from LA-based Cake Monkey Bakery, their ice cream sandwiches get filled with flavors from San Francisco's mad scientist of ice cream, Humphry Slocombe. The version we tried featured housemade peanut butter cookies sandwiched around a scoop of—drum roll, please—salt-and-pepper ice cream. The sweet cookies offset the salty, aromatically-flavored ice cream, making for a surprisingly good combination, though one of my dining companions made clear that she didn't find the ice cream even remotely bearable on its own.
As for the restaurant itself, Umami Burger has chosen a spot on Union Street, in the rather affluent Cow Hollow neighborhood. Entering the restaurant felt a bit like visiting Mr. Miyagi's house, all wood-paneling and a few Japanese insignias. A white samurai sword sits on display by the door. The restaurant had plenty of staff, with maybe not enough to do during our early-Sunday lunch. The excess of servers resulted in a few too many awkward offers to clear the table as we used our fries to sop up leftover burger juice on otherwise empty plates.
Umami Burger apparently has plans to expand all the way to New York. Based on early signs, I'd like to volunteer to save owner Adam Fleischman all those hours on a plane—I'm sure we can find him a few more Bay Area locations.