Sure, New York also has a bit of everything, or rather a lot of everything. But its crowdedness and competitiveness make it the Everest to L.A.’s Kilimanjaro: you practically need a Sherpa to tackle New York effectively, and you just might lose a digit or limb. L.A. is more reasonably scaled, with the newest, hottest restaurants less likely to book up a solid month in advance. When a friend and I dropped in — at the height of lunch hour, no less — to one of the four branches of Umami Burger, the cult favorite of the city’s ground-beef set, we were seated immediately, in comfy chairs at a big table that could have accommodated four. In contrast, almost any mealtime visit to any location of New York’s Shake Shack involves a significant stretch of time — 20 minutes isn’t exceptional — on a serpentine line. That’s for counter service. At Umami, someone actually waits on you.
The Umami story demonstrates the enterprise and speed with which L.A.’s restaurateurs are tackling trends. When Adam Fleischman, its principal owner, opened the first Umami in Mid-Wilshire in January 2009, he was entering an arena brimming with competitors, each with fanatical adherents. There was Father’s Office, with its unyielding commandment that arugula and caramelized onions should dress every patty. There was 8 oz. Burger Bar, which permitted free will. And there was of course In-N-Out, less restaurant than fast-food franchise but perhaps the earliest architect of the bridge between McDonald’s and self-regarding gourmands.
Fleischman had a hook that sagely took into account the self-consciously erudite posturing of so many food enthusiasts today. ‘‘I wanted to do something with umami,’’ he says, referring to the so-called fifth taste (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter), which is vaguely described as ‘‘savoriness’’ and until recent years wasn’t universally accepted as an actual, definable trait. So each of the burgers at Umami is constructed with an emphasis on ingredients thought to be catalysts for umami. The caramelized onions on the signature burger are seasoned with star anise ‘‘because it’s an umami booster,’’ Fleischman says. The burger is also dressed with sautéed shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese and oven-dried tomatoes, all thought to be umami bombs.