★ ★ ★ In 1908 a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda patented the process of isolating C5H8NO4Na from seaweed and, later, wheat flour. The compound is more commonly known as monosodium gluatamate but most commonly referred to as MSG. Ikeda saw huge potential for its flavor-enhancing properties and began marketing the food additive a year later. The taste, he thought, was so unique that he coined a new word to describe it: Umami.
Translated literally, umami means “pleasant, savory taste” (as distinct from the four tastes we are biologically equipped to identify: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). Despite its origin, umami isn’t solely achieved by the addition of MSG. Many foods have natural umami, including aged meat, cheese and shellfish. These foods are naturally high in glutamates and thus impart the umami flavor. In 2009—100 years after Ikeda’s discovery of MSG—scientists discovered that our tongues do in fact have a receptor activated exclusively by glutamate. That same year, Adam Fleischman founded Umami Burger in Los Angeles. It now has 23 locations (including two in San Francsico) with ambitions expanding to 150 or more.
Although your average burger is most likely an umami experience (beef, cheese, and tomatoes all have naturally-ocurring glutamate), the capital-U Umami burger is singularly dedicated to promoting this unique flavor profile.
Umami fashions its patties from American Waygu beef, which they grind in-house daily (they also make their own buns). To further enhance the umami flavor, the meat is seasoned with soy sauce and dusted with a mixture of ground-up dried porcini mushrooms and dried fish heads. Their signature burger includes caramelized onions, shiitake mushroom, and roasted tomatoes. Shitake mushrooms have a powerful umami flavor, while tomatoes are somewhat subtler. The roasting also brings out a faint sweetness which combines nicely with the earthy mushroom. Finally, a savory (err...umami) parmesan crisp seals the deal. It’s worth noting that, among cheeses, parmesan has the most potent umami flavor with 1200mg of glutamate per 100g.
Besides its flavor, several things distinguish an Umami burger from other hamburgers. The entire burger is hot—no cold juicy tomato, no crisp lettuce. I’ve long held that combination of hot and cold, soft and crisp is integral to the construction of a good hamburger. Even Bar Jules’ completely undressed burger offers a tart, crisp salad as a complement. But Umami eschews this convention, as it does many others, in its tenacious dedication to a solitary flavor experience.
Another distinction is its incorporation of cheese. While you can usually rely on a good cheeseburger to include a gooey slab of melted American or cheddar, Umami’s grilled parmesan crisp adds a savory, delicate crunch. While I personally dislike the flavor, it is a sophisticated choice that many will appreciate.
The final distinction of the Umami burger is its construction. Unlike conventional burgers in which the ingredients are stacked vertically (such that each bite offers a consistent survey of the ingredients), we watched as the cook arranged the toppings carefully in horizontal sequence. The first few bites were exclusively dedicated to the shiitake mushroom, followed later by the sweet roasted tomatoes. It is a delightfully thoughtful touch.
The flavor profile of the Umami burger is so distinct from that of any other burger it’s hard to place it in the same category. Like the aforementioned offering from Bar Jules, it pushes the definition of the burger genre into unfamiliar (and sometimes unsettling) territory.
And perhaps that’s the problem.
As much as I admire the inventiveness, skill and vision that goes into every Umami burger, it is so far outside its category that I have a difficult time relating to it as a burger. Without the security of that orientation, my relationship to its unique flavor is somewhat untethered. I find those flavors overpowering and a little too self conscious—they make such an earnest effort to be recognized as different. Shitake upon Waygu upon tomato upon soy sauce upon fish heads upon parmesan is—for me—too much of a good thing. Though each element was selected for the subtlety of its flavor, as a whole the burger is ironically lacking in nuance.
The Creative Lesson
Objectively, Umami burger does everything great design should do. Subjectively, though, it just isn’t my taste. That’s the consequence of assuming a strong point of view; design outcomes will be located on the fringes of familiar. Those borders are narrow territory—occupied by the adventurous and defended by the loyal. Within them you’ll often find a core constituency of passionate supporters, while those with different tastes and values will find themselves on the other side of the wall.
NB: Nathan gives the Umami burger an unequivocal five stars. We previously disagreed sharply on Bar Jules Burger. Stay tuned for a bonus post exploring the distance between our divergent opinions.