Just when I thought burger mania had waned, along comes Umami Burger. Yes, Umami.
No, it is not — as one friend suggested — the University of Miami's move into patties on buns.
Umami is the so-called fifth taste, invented by a Japanese scientist in the early 20th century to describe a salty-tangy flavor that didn't fit the established four: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Parmesan cheese, kimchi, prosciutto, anchovies and soy sauce are all good examples of umami. The Umami Information center calls it "a pleasant savory taste imparted by glutamate, a type of amino acid."
We have Umami Burger because Adam Fleischman became obsessed with heightening the already umami-rich flavor of cooked ground beef. After much tinkering, Fleischman opened his first Umami Burger four years ago in Southern California with a $40,000 investment. The Golden State is now home to 15 locations.
Miami Beach is Fleischman's first East Coast venture. New York is next.
If burgers are your thing, you owe it to yourself to eat at Umami. Exactly how the umami factor gets ramped up is unclear. Some people say it's simple MSG, but I'm doubtful. These burgers have a markedly deeper flavor. It's especially apparent in the Original ($11), topped with a Parmesan crisp, shiitake mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions and house-made ketchup.
Like other burgers on the menu, it's not enormous — just six fulfilling ounces of the restaurant's beef blend on a bun that's not quite supermarket white bread and not quite brioche. It's clear to me that a master of taste and texture invented this thing. The bun is soft. The meat is coarsely ground. There's no such thing as a dry burger at Umami.
The Truffle Burger ($12) and the Truffle Royale ($15) take this umami thing a step further with even more of those flavors. The Royale is topped with braised short rib, roasted garlic aioli and truffle cheese. The regular Truffle has truffle glaze.
But it's not all about beef. In fact, some of my favorite items can be found in the "Un-Beef" section of the menu. As Umami Burger will do in every new market, it has created a burger meant only for this restaurant. Called the Cubano ($15), it's a ground-pork patty with braised pork belly, American cheese, bread and butter pickles, shaved prosciutto, smoked ham and pineapple-mojo mustard. Despite all these toppings, it holds together like the traditional beef burgers and offers the same feat of taste and texture as the beef burgers. The Greenbird ($12) is a ground-turkey burger with avocado, cheese, butter lettuce, sprouts and good old green-goddess dressing. The Ahi Tuna Burger ($15) combines seared ahi with sprouts, avocado, gingered carrots and wasabi.
Burgers are a la carte, so you'll want fried pickles with jalapeno ranch ($6) and thin fries ($3.50). I recommend ordering the fries with truffle cheese and truffle salt for $2 more and even more umami. I was also impressed with the house pickle plate ($5), which includes a couple of versions of cucumber as well as okra and peppers. It deserves to be presented on a proper relish tray. The so-called Truffled Beet Salad ($7) was excellent, but it's really more of an arugula salad with ricotta, almonds, truffle dressing and a few very good yellow beets. The Umami Caesar ($8) had no semblance to the classic, in part because of too much lemon and the kale and butter lettuce in place of Romaine.
There's much more to recommend at Umami Burger, including a dozen draft beers, a small affordable wine list and some special cocktails. Service is burger-joint efficient and mostly friendly. It ought to be, since an 18 percent gratuity is added to all checks. But this is South Beach, where out-of-the-country tourists don't always understand our tipping customs.
Finally, don't be put off by all this umami talk. Umami Burger is just a very good burger restaurant with a curious moniker that some people will no doubt call shtick. I call it smart.
1080 Alton Road, Miami Beach
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Moderate
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu
Wheelchair accessible: Yes