Umami Burger and the Melt: Science Meets Fast Food with Muddled Results

The McRib, which zooms through the American media with the regularity of a lesser comet, is back again, trailed as always by a glowing cloud of hype and disgust. The McRib is the most delicious mass of sweet, molded pork parts ever concocted in Ronald's labs! The McRib contains ground-up pig stomach and ammonium sulfate!

San Francisco, which has far more McDonald's restaurants than it likes to admit, is now being colonized by two nascent fast-food chains that may be sidestepping the foodista loathing for processed food: Umami Burger and The Melt. The two are doing it with Earth-huggy claims, to be sure — good ingredients, compostable cutlery — but also with tech-geek-worthy backstories. The new chains' McRibs? Burgers and grilled-cheese sandwiches. Re-engineered with science, of course.

No surprise that Fast Company and Mashable reported on the coming of the Melt before SF's food press got to it. Founder Jonathan Kaplan designed the Flip video camera, scored hundreds of millions of venture capital from Sequoia Capital, and enlisted Michael Mina to consult on his menu of grilled cheese sandwiches and soups. Kaplan opened the first of 500 promised locations in September on New Montgomery Street, and is already cloning locations at One Embarcadero Center and 345 Spear.

The company designed a grilled-cheese-making machine that griddles the bread and microwaves the cheese inside nigh simultaneously, as well as a computer system that takes advance orders over the Internet, speeding diners through the checkout system. And so the aisles of the Melt, its white tiled walls decorated only with a giant orange logo, are clogged with FiDi lunchers staring up at a computer screen that tells them when their food is ready. Two months in, the system is still buggy; on one visit my companion and I received one wrong order and waited 30 minutes for the other.

Melt's machine produces a grilled cheese (all $5.75) with a glossy, evenly browned exterior — not lacking in butter — with a quarter-inch puddle of melted cheese contained between the two slices of bread. It's a grilled cheese, all right, but a sterile one— there are no compressed spatula marks in the bread, no globs of cheese that have escaped the bread to crisp on the griddle. The Classic (supposedly sharp cheddar on potato bread) is flat-out bland, the Italian Job (fontina and provolone on garlic bread) is sprinkled with dried herbs but otherwise indistinct. Aged gouda in the Wild Thing tastes like supermarket Swiss. Adding bacon and tomato to the sandwiches helps, mostly because it's free, so you don't feel like you've paid $6 for a sandwich you mastered at the age of 7.

Sandwich combos ($8.75) come with a Barbie-sized packet of chips and a half-pint of soup. Melt's tomato-basil soup is vivid and not too sweet, while the creamy wild mushroom tastes of sauteed creminis bolstered by the earthier funk of dried mushrooms. Is it a little strange to be eating a pepper-sausage soup with the consistency of a milkshake? Yes, but the flavors are fresh and well balanced.

Umami Burger's origin myth floated up the coast even before the 2-year-old, L.A.-based chain opened its sixth store, on Union Street, last month. Backstory: The Japanese word umami (“delicious,” “savory”) has been claimed by cooks and food scientists to describe a “sixth taste” of fullness, present in foods like meat, cooked tomatoes, and aged cheeses. Not only has founder Adam Fleischman come up with a method of cooking his burgers at low temperatures to medium-rare and then quickly browning them on a griddle, he douses them in umamitude.

Umami is the city's most attractive burger restaurant, a confluence of ruddy woods, pale grays, and ceramic tiles dominated by a wall of cedar-shake shingles. Servers deliver the burgers in good time and return to chirp, “Didn't you just love that!” Not the sides, I'd have to say. With the exception of straight-up skinny fries ($3.50), most were awful — a mixed pickle plate ($5) with good cucumber dills and another half-dozen bitter, biting varieties; tempura onion rings ($4.50) that resemble giant, oil-drenched throw pillows; truffle fries smothered in globs of cheese and truffle oil.

The beef burgers are fatty enough to ooze juice until the last bite, and the 6-ounce patties are all presented on a toasted, high-domed bun of perfect size. Sweet, wine-braised caramelized onions and the rumbling pungency of blue cheese crowd the port-Stilton burger ($10) along with the beef, to good effect. The Earth burger ($12) heavily seasons a soft patty of ground mushrooms and edamame with dark soy sauce (umami!), and it's quite good. The core of the bacon-scallop burger ($15) is a pale patty of ground scallops with a clear, elegant flavor, though it's marred by a jarringly sweet sauce and too few flecks of pork belly.

And the signature Umami Burger ($11), umami'd up with roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, sauteed shiitakes, and a lacy Parmesan crisp? It definitely has a swagger, a full-charge meatiness that is easy to appreciate. Yet the check for a burger, fries, and beer can top $30, and for that price, there are juiced-up, beefy burgers in town to rival it — Serpentine's, Zuni's, and Heirloom's come to mind. In all the umami-ness of Umami Burger, I missed the contrasting elements that help make these less-engineered burgers so good: the watery crunch of fresh lettuce, the acidic flash of pickles, the bite of mustard — none of which were available. Science produces a good burger, but a cook makes it great.

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