Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Umami Burger: It's not what you think

Out of place doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel when I walk up to Umami Burger on Hollywood Blvd. on Friday night.

I shift my eyes over the casually dressed crowd lingering at their tables on the patio and tug down on my new Anthropologie print dress. “Maybe I should have gone with jeans,” I think as I awkwardly approach the hostess stand.

“There’s going to be three of us…” I stammer. “But they aren’t here yet. Can I put our name down for a table or…?”

“We don’t seat incomplete parties, but you’re welcome to wait at the bar.” The hostess responds brightly, unaware that the words “wait at the bar” have thrown me into panic mode.

“Right.” I respond. “I’ll do that.”

I approach the short expanse of bar with trepidation. A boy, who looks like a regular, is sitting in the middle of the space hungrily digging into a bowl of sweet potato fries while aggressively slurping his beer. I scoot onto one of the stools, and try to look casual as I orient myself to my surroundings. A TV is playing a basketball game, but I don’t even bother pretending to watch. It would be obvious to everyone – the bartender, the hungry boy who is now annihilating a burger, and the influx of people coming in for to-go orders – that I’m not actually interested in the score.

“Can I get you something?” The bartender asks.

“Do you have a wine list?” I respond, turning red at the sound of my predictable request. I feel like rolling my eyes at myself, giving my dress the once over, and whispering to someone about how totally lame and Shelley Long in “Cheers” I am.

Instead, I sit there being my former teenage self, afraid to engage with anyone. I sip my $6 glass of a standard New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, I play with my phone, and I eye the door like I’m expecting Jesus to walk through at any moment. I practically leap from my seat when my friend Ashley and her friend Belle arrive 15 minutes later. Finally, I have reinforcements.

We are seated a few minutes later at a table for four in the middle of the expansive, sporty restaurant. I’m much more at ease now that I’m among friends who don’t inhale their burgers in less than four bites like the hungry fellow at the bar. Ashley orders a glass of Pinot Noir, Belle declares that she’s going to get the garden salad as her side, and then we all place orders for the restaurant’s vegetarian Earth Burger ($11). Our behavior is so deliciously girly I can’t help but make note of it to our waiter. He doesn’t respond – just scurries away to the kitchen to put in our wimpy requests.

But we don’t care if he finds us painfully feminine. The meatless burger composed of a mushroom and edamame patty topped with white soy aioli, truffle ricotta, cipollini onions, lettuce, and slow-roasted tomatoes is the reason we’re here tonight. And it’s the reason that I qualify my Foursquare check-in on Twitter with the phrase, “It’s not what you think.”

Because I don’t want to try the real Umami burger – the one that most people swear is like a meat massage for the mouth. I have no interest in the drippy, bloody medium rare carcass of flesh that others consider a grease bomb.

That doesn’t, however, keep me from lubricating my arteries with an order of the sweet potato fries to share with Ashley. The heap of thin-cut, crisp fries are lighter than I expect. They don’t leave a streak of oil on my fingers when I grab them two at a time (my preferred method of eating fries) to dip into the house-made ketchup. They’re also sweeter than I expect – perhaps because of the ketchup that also seems to be jazzed up with some form of sugar – and perhaps because they are minimally salted. They’re good, but oddly enough, I prefer the versions I’ve had at Native Foods, Veggie Grill and M Cafe de Chaya.

No such assessment can be made when the Earth Burger arrives at the table. The beet juice-stained patty stands tall and proud on the glazed brioche bun that’s been grilled in an indiscreet amount of butter. It’s an in-your-face veggie burger that screams “Just because I’m vegetarian, doesn’t mean I’m a pussy.” It has stature, girth, and, most importantly, flavor.

As I dive my teeth through the spongy bun and thick fleshy patty, I feel as though I’m actually eating real animal carnage. Not because it tastes like meat, but because it tastes decadent and indulgent like meat – especially when I reach the center of the burger where the truffle ricotta is concentrated.

When I finish the beastly concoction, I feel more satisfied than I ever have after finishing a veggie burger. I feel less satisfied after sampling the special dessert of the night – a fried Cake Monkey oatmeal sandwich cookie with vanilla ice cream ($10). The once respectable cookie has disintegrated into the puffy fried shell and when we break into it with our forks, there is only the slightest hint of oaty flavor remaining. It’s palatable when paired with the ice cream, but not particularly compelling. The ice cream is also less impressive when eaten solo.

Despite the shaky landing with dessert and my shaky take-off at the bar, the epic Earth Burger has already come to define my first visit to Umami. As we get ready to leave the restaurant, I finally feel like I belong.

I finally feel like I’m in the right place.

Umami Burger
4655 Hollywood Boulevard,
Los Angeles, CA
(323) 669-3922


stuffycheaks said...

Wow! even as a major carnivore, I have to say that i'd give that earth burger a chance. I thought their turkey miso burger (with babaganoush) was better than their regular burger.

weezermonkey said...

Ha! I'm the opposite of stuffycheaks. I don't think I could eat a non-meat burger at Umami!

Esi said...

I think that's what I have to get the next time I go to Umami. The undercooked burger just didn't do it for me the last time I was there.

The Cooking Photographer said...

Thank-you for the contest info Diana. That was really nice of you. I'll go enter!

And that burger. O.M.G. and holy cow and I want one now.


The Cooking Photographer said...

I have to follow you now. Your blog makes me drool.

the actor's diet said...

i adore umami. i've had the earth burger before but it looked different! i think they're always evolving...

bagnatic said...

i was not a fan of the umami meat burgers, but perhaps they can lure me back with their earth burger.

btw, i thought your dress looked cute. good buy!

Bianca said...

I've never had a umami burger but I don't think I'm brave enough to devour one so you've got me beat there!

Gastronomer said...

LOL! I can't believe all three of y'all ordered the veggie burger.

And fabulous use of the word pussy:

“Just because I’m vegetarian, doesn’t mean I’m a pussy.”

A first, I believe, in all my years of reading food blogs.

Monet said...

I love it. Veggie burgers rock! And your dress is adorable. Don't we all love anthropologie? You are such a talented writer, and I found myself transported to the restaurant with you and your sweet friends. Thank you for sharing!

Ashley said...

I think we need that phrase on a t-shirt.

catty said...

I went to Umami Burger (think a different branch to yours though.. less sports pubby and errr, Sophia Bush from One Tree Hill was there!) when I was last in LA and LOVED IT. I didn't have the sweet potato fries though but gee they do look good...