Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - May 17, 2013

Umami on University

The L.A.-based burger chain takes on Silicon Valley

by Elena Kadvany

Hardbound books with titles like "Dreamers of the American Dream," "Inside Asia," "The Periccone Prescription" and "Harvard Classics: English Poetry, Chaucer to Gray" fill wooden bookcases.

Huge canvases hang on the walls, made into collages of images like a Macworld magazine cover, anatomical drawings and quotes from Timothy Leary and Steve Jobs.

You're not in a college library, nor a burgeoning Silicon Valley startup. You're in Umami Burger.

Once a Los Angeles grassroots burger spot and now a multi-million-dollar restaurant group, Umami is all about creating, expanding — and localizing. Every Umami Burger's physical space is designed with its location in mind, as well as the menu, with a signature burger and tailored drink menu.

Owner and founder Adam Fleischman explained the Palo Alto design. "As Palo Alto is a very forward-thinking community, we thought the look of a library or study would work perfectly," he said. "The decor reflects all of the thought and innovation that's part of Palo Alto, from the tech community to Stanford University."

The newest Northern California outpost of Umami Burger opened on March 15 on University Avenue, serving up unusual, higher-end burgers that revolve around the concept of Umami, or the Japanese word for the sought-after fifth taste.

"Umami is a Japanese concept that refers to the savory taste of foods, based on how glutamates in certain foods react with your tastebuds," Fleischman said. "Our burgers are built around foods with high amounts of umami in them, like mushrooms, parmesan cheese and roasted tomato, all of which are included in our Original Umami Burger."

The fifth taste manifests in many forms on the Palo Alto menu, from the "Original" ($11) to the "Truffle Royale" ($15), a beef patty topped with braised short rib and Umami's own truffle cheese; and starters such as truffle fries ($5.50) and the "smushed potatoes" ($4.50), double-fried, creamed and smashed into small crispy bites.

Any burger can be served "poutine style" — bunless with Umami gravy or just bunless/meatless — but Palo Alto general manager Patrick Smith said the restaurant frowns upon substitutions.

"Our motto is 'Trust us,'" Smith explained, pointing to a binary code, a string of ones and zeros written in white text on the back of servers' red T-shirts, with the same meaning. "So trust us and believe in us that we know what we're doing here, the scientific process behind our Umami flavors, that you're going to really enjoy what we've created for whichever community that we're in."

San Francisco's Union Street location, Umami's first Northern California outpost, for example, gets a bacon-wrapped scallop burger just right for the city by the Bay.

The Palo Alto kitchen, headed by kitchen manager Cody Shields, serves up an "exclusive" burger that, much like the restaurant decor, is a shout-out to local students and techies. Order the "All-Nighter" and you'll get Umami's beef patty, a freshly ground-to-order blend of three steaks, seasoned with patented Umami Sauce and Umami Dust; topped with maple-glazed slab bacon, cheesy tot hash brown and smothered in a coffee-infused red-eye gravy.

"It's an homage to diner food — like what you would eat in college at 2 a.m. while up all night cramming," Fleischman said.

Though beef is Umami's specialty, the buck doesn't stop there. Under an "Un-Beef" menu section, a few red-meat-free options hide in plain sight: an ahi tuna burger with hand-chopped ahi tuna, sprouts, crushed avocado, gingered carrots, wasabi flakes and wasabi tartar ($13); "The Greenbird," made with turkey, crushed avocado, green cheese, butter lettuce, sprouts and a special "green goddess" sauce ($12); and a tricked-out "Earth Burger"($12), a mushroom and edamame patty with truffled ricotta, cipollini onions, butter lettuce, roasted tomato and white soy aioli.

Every burger, regardless of what's inside, comes sandwiched between two compact buns, the top one neatly stamped with an upper-case "U."

Sides include thin, standard-style fries that customers can enhance ("truffle 'em," "make 'em manly" or "smother 'em"), tempura onion rings, sweet-potato fries and fried pickles.

Salads are also umami-fied. A truffled beet salad comes with truffled ricotta, smoked almonds, wild baby arugula and truffle dressing ($7); and a Caesar salad, made of kale and butter lettuce, is drizzled in Umami's Caesar dressing and topped with fresh parmesan. (Fleischman said in a 2012 interview with Los Angeles Magazine that parmesan has the second-highest umami levels of any ingredient, and the most of any cheese.)

Smith called Umami's beer and wine menus, wine in particular, Fleischman's "baby."

Fleischman, who formerly worked for several L.A. wine retailers and founded and ran some of the city's first wine bars, said that his company has a few standard beer and wine options at every location, but that he prefers to bring in local spirits whenever possible.

Palo Alto's whites include a California chardonnay and an African chenin blanc, and reds such as an Argentine malbec and a honoro vera garnacha from Calatayud, a wine region in Spain. A French brut called Le Grand Courtage ($12) that Fleischman "loves" is the only bubbly on the menu.

The small but eclectic beer menu offers two bottles with somewhat local ties: the Full Boar Scotch Ale from Devil's Canyon Brewing Company in Belmont ($12) and Drake's Denogginizer IPA from Drake's Brewing Co. in San Leandro ($8).

For alcohol-free options, Umami also serves Abita root beer, Mexican Sprite and Coke, Orange Fanta and Bundaberg ginger beer, among others.

So far, Palo Altans seem to like what the Umami concept has to offer. Smith said that five weeks after opening, Palo Alto came in as the third-highest-grossing Umami Burger location, out of its 14 other restaurants. "It's far exceeded our expectations," he said.

Info: Umami Burger is at 452 University Ave. in Palo Alto, open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 to 11. Call 650-321-8626 or go to umami.com/umami-burger/eats/palo-alto/.

Comments

Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park
on May 28, 2013 at 11:15 pm

I went to Umami Burger the other day. I should have read some real reviews. The trouble with Palo Alto restaurants is that they all seem to think that because they are in Palo Alto they are upscale and exclusive. Umami is not really very good. The fries were good, but they try to make their own ketchup ... which is kind of ludicrous, it just makes fries taste funny to try to outdo Heinz, which is after so many years world class. Don't try to compete on Ketchup ... that is part of Umami's problem, their mindset I think.

The service is not very good, lots of wait-people running around not getting much done. Maybe this is just the first jobs a lot of these people have, and it shows. This place has rip-off written all over it.

Did find out about Singha, Thai beer, which I thought was light and perfect for eating, great, so thanks for that. The location is cramped, and taking out the silly book cases and putting in some sound-proofing might really go a long way towards making this place bearable. I think the people that work here can probably sue their company for hearing damage if they are in that place all day, it's loud.

The main problem is the food just because it is cute and special does not make it good. Not cooked well, not consistent. After the flash goes they are going to have to start to deliver on good food and I'm not sure they can.


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