Umami Burger Arrives in Style

The Studio City opening of Umami Valli, the fifth restaurant in L.A.'s gourmet-burger chain, brings a touch of old Hollywood glamour to Ventura Boulevard.

After months of waiting, Umami Valli (aka Valley) finally opened on Wednesday in Studio City. True to form, the latest outlet in the gourmet burger mini-chain has been packed.

The fifth rendition (and the first in the 818) of this insanely popular L.A. burger restaurant has gone upscale in Hollywood Regency style, designed by Allen Ravert of Mexicali Cocina (next door), who partnered on this location with Umami owner-chef Adam Fleischman.

I got to check it out at the family and friends soft opening on Tuesday. Guests were all  greeted warmly by Fleischman, who seems to be everywhere these days with the five Umami Burgers, the recently opened Red Medicine in Beverly Hills, Umamicatessen in the works downtown, the upcoming 800° pizza eatery in Westwood, and more Umami Burgers opening in the Bay Area—and he's accomplished all this in two years. Before he got into the burger biz, he founded Bottlerock and Vinoteque, which were the first wine bars in Los Angeles.

Each Umami has its own identity and this one most definitely has personality—it’s sophisticated and urban with a whimsical twist. Servers are dressed in black with some wearing white suspenders or white ties, evoking a bit of a cool, crisp gangster look. Think Bonnie and Clyde meets retro Palm Springs in a Hollywood supper club.

Red, high-backed, tufted leatherette chairs with gold tacks line the narrow eatery where there is a bar on one side and tables with marble tops on the other side. Black booths line the walls. Crystal chandeliers in a vintage style hang from the ceiling, while mirrors with antiqued gold frames tilt from the walls next to sconces. Once the weather warms up, the front window can be opened to serve diners on the sidewalk patio from inside.  There are a total of 60 seats indoors and out.

The Umami concept comes from Japanese meaning “the fifth taste,” which is savory—following other tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Umami grinds its own meat, processes much of its cheese (house-made American cheese is one), and makes  its own pickles, ketchup, aioli, kombu relish, jalapeno ranch, and, of course, the house spread, Umami sauce. This isn’t the place to get a basic plain burger.

I’ve been to a couple of the other Umami locales and have loved the beef burgers, so this time I wanted to try something a little different from the eight carefully selected burgers on the menu. I chose the Earth Burger—a veggie burger made with edamame and mushrooms, truffle aioli, ricotta cheese, onions and an oven-roasted tomato. Of course, it's not like biting down into a juicy burger, but it's a standout in the veggie realm. I liked it especially with extra Umami sauce and a touch of the house-made ketchup.

My friend ordered the Greenbird—a turkey burger with avocado, green goddess dressing, sprouts and cheese. Piled high, it’s a juicy, flavorful burger. The burgers all come in a soft, puffy Portuguese bun that absorbs the favors of the burger and toppings. Each bun is branded with a large U on top.

The rest of the burger lineup includes the signature Umami Burger, with a parmesan cheese crisp, roasted tomato and caramelized onions (get it with a portobello substitute if you prefer); the Manly Burger, topped with beer-cheddar cheese, smoked-salt onion strings and bacon lardons; the Port & Stilton, with blue cheese and port caramelized onions; the So-Cal—the Umami version of the cheeseburger; and the ever-so-decadent Truffle Burger (truffle cheese and glaze).

Umami Valli has a couple of new side items: a Truffled Beet Salad and Smushed Potatoes. The beet salad is layered with ricotta cheese on the bottom and topped with smoked almonds, baby arugula and a truffle dressing. I love the layering because you can get a spoonful of ricotta in every bite. The potatoes are tiny yellow dutch creamers that have been “smushed” down. Rich and delicious, they are a refreshing departure from fries—and go with the more sophisticated theme of this Umami. Other sides include: french fries, sweet potato fries (sprinkled with salt, sugar and cinnamon), which are positively addictive, and thick, stacked onion rings dipped in malt liquor tempura.

Baked desserts are made by Cake Monkey especially for Umami. Ice cream sandwiches are from Milk on Beverly Boulevard. Yesterday the choice included pecan pie and apple pie. What to choose? Too difficult, so we went with two. First up was the apple pie, which we ordered with ice cream. The good-size piece was generously filled with apples and cinnamon with an essence of lemon. The crust was light and flaky with a sprinkling of sugar. The surprise at the end of the crust was a taste of cheese baked into the dough. It’s one of the best apple pies I’ve eaten. There were a few ice-cream sandwich flavors available, including rocky road and coffee toffee,  but we agreed on cookies and cream. The cookie is similar to a Parisian macaron—very light and soft instead of crunchy. The ice cream is creamy and substantial.

Since it was afternoon, we didn’t partake of alcohol and instead opted for a flavored seltzer water. Soft drink choices are fun here, including bottles of ginger beer and Mexican Coke.

That being said, I can’t wait to go back to Umami Valli when the sun goes down. The full bar has some very alluring mixology cocktails. Those include Umami-ritas (choose from cucumber, jalapeno and yuzu), the Urban Sidecar (brandy, yuzu, lime juice, orange liqueur, cranberry and a citrus sugar rim), and a Dirty Shirley (cherry vodka, strawberry puree and Bubble Up). Also available is a tight selection of craft bottle and draft beers, as well as select wines by the glass and a special reserve each week.

Umami is within walking distance of my house. I'll definitely be back.

**Special thanks to Tom Caltabiano who was sitting at the next table with his incredible camera (and great eye) and who graciously agreed to let me use his photos. 

Umami Valli 12159 Ventura Blvd. (at Vantage Avenue), Studio City. Free parking in back lot. Open 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Burgers ($8-$11), Sides ($3.50-$7), Desserts ($3-$4.50), Cocktails ($8-$12), Wine ($6-$12), Beer ($4-$8).  


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