To make a hamburger, if you happen to be Nathan Myhrvold, you grind short rib meat so that the fibers of the meat are all facing the same way, you carefully form your patty so that the grain is vertically aligned, wrap it in plastic and cook it, unsealed, in a 130-degree water bath for half an hour. Then you unwrap the meat, dunk it in liquid nitrogen for 30 seconds and deep-fry.
I've never had the hamburger — nobody has, at least outside the confines of the Seattle-area workshop where it was perfected — but Dr. Myhrvold says it is the best hamburger in the world, and I am inclined to trust him on this. His burger is sauced with a complex glaze made with smoked salt, reduced beef stock and tomato confit; garnished with maitake mushrooms sauteed in beef suet, lettuce infused with liquid hickory smoke, and a compressed heirloom tomato; and finished with a cheese slice concocted from aged Emmental, Comté and ale.
Myhrvold can talk seemingly forever about umami, the Maillard reaction (the principle behind the caramelization of meat) and the physics of the tenderness of meat. He has more Ph.D.s than most people do pairs of shoes, and he became famous as the chief technology officer of Microsoft. He knows how to engineer a desired result.
It would take a stronger man than I to resist the lure of Myhrvold's five-volume, 40-pound Modernist Cuisine, which has become an essential shop manual for the kitchen, or at least the kind of kitchen equipped with sous vide and an antigriddle.
When I mentioned Myhrvold's hamburger to a chef friend a few months ago, it reminded him of Umami Burger, the insanely popular small hamburger chain, which cooks its patties for a long time at a low temperature, and then — ssst, ssst — briefly sears them before serving. The chain obviously plays with the same sort of umami that Myhrvold's lab exploits.
When I talked to Myhrvold again, he affirmed what my friend had mentioned: Umami Burger, he said, was probably the first restaurant to employ modernist techniques at that kind of volume.
Umami Burger's modernist techniques are pretty apparent — owner Adam Fleischman is in touch with his inner food geek. The restaurants are dedicated to the concept of umami, the savory, meaty “fifth taste” that may be technically defined as the carboxylate anion of glutamic acid, which is to say the dash of soy sauce in your stir-fry or the catsup you like with your fries. At Umami Burger it's mushroomy catsup.
Like the Sunday sudoku, the umami burger, the restaurant's multilayered signature creation, is a puzzle demanding to be solved: Where's the umami? You can easily sort out the grilled mushroom cap, the roasted tomato, the melted onions, the caramelized crust of the meat, the sauce and the crunchy frieze of griddled cheese. Mmmmm — the taste of ribonucleotides.
If you should happen by the Studio City Umami Burger on a Wednesday night, you understand that volume: The dining room is full to bursting and the crowd outside on the sidewalk thrums like a Kogi line. At the somewhat larger Hollywood branch, the overflow spills into the dress shops and bookstore in the design mall. (It is a single tick away from becoming one of those places with the vibrating hockey puck.) In the sprawling Los Feliz branch, the waiting list bides its time with craft beers or drinks at the bar — drinks, it goes without saying, that often contain umami-rich ingredients like yuzu or seaweed.
Umami Burger was the first place in town to take on English modernist-cuisine star Heston Blumenthal's triple-cooked french fries, with fairly mushy results. It's back to regular fries now, as well as sweet potato fries. It formulates its own ultramelty cheese. Its logo recalls a burger-centric take on Georgia O'Keeffe imagery, which implies an umami of its own.
In the umami game, truffle oil is the first refuge of a scoundrel, and at Umami Burger, they use it by the quart: burgers with truffle cheese, truffle fries and beet salad with ricotta and enough truffle oil to float a surfboard. If you've been to one of the restaurants, you know about the hierarchy of the burgers, from the sharply delicious burgers with Hatch chiles to the dull In-N-Out simulacrum, the bacon-studded Manly Burger to the mushy ahi burger.
But I was anxious to see if a small bit of knowledge made any difference in the way I understood the meat. The burgers are compact beasts nestled into hand-size, gently toasted buns. The crust of the meat is crisp, sweet, well-browned; the juicy, dripping patties are perhaps juicier, more loosely compacted than one might expect from meat with a developed crust, but not significantly so. The interesting thing was that the meat dripped like a rare burger, but had the pinky-gray color of a burger cooked to medium. It was a good hamburger.
But I'm not sure whether it is a good sign that my favorite thing at the restaurant is neither the umami burger nor the burger with port and Stilton, but the turkey burger with green goddess dressing, avocado and sprouts. It tasted very, very green.
UMAMI BURGER | 12159 Ventura Blvd., Studio City | (818) 286-9004 | umamiburger.com | Open daily 11 a.m.-2 a.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Lot parking in rear | Burgers $10-$15; sides $3-$5 | Also at 1520 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; 500 Broadway, Santa Monica; 4655 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; 850 S. La Brea Ave., Mid-City