Umami Burger comes to Palo Alto | April 26, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - April 26, 2013

Umami Burger comes to Palo Alto

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 signature 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 range from a California chardonnay to an African chenin blanc, and reds from an Argentine malbec to 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: 452 University Ave.

Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a..m. to 11 p.m.

(650) 321-8626


There are no comments yet for this post

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Choose a category: *

Since this is the first comment on this story a new topic will also be started in Town Square! Please choose a category that best describes this story.

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields