I've taken a two-hour detour to eat at an In-N-Out Burger. I can debate the pros and cons of eating at Kuma's Corner or Lockdown. But for some reason, I've never been to an Umami Burger. That changed last night, when I sat down in the brand new Wicker Park location (1480 N Milwaukee Ave) of the much-lauded California burger chain. The restaurant's name refers to the Japanese word for the elusive "fifth taste," a savory, meaty flavor that differs from the usual range of sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Umami's first Midwest location opens to the public on Thursday, but I was invited to give some of the restaurant's dishes a try a few days early, including its eponymous burger.
My date and I began the evening with a plate of the double-fried Smushed Potatoes, which are like bite-sized baked potatoes with a hashbrown-like consistency. They were served with a garlic aioli, but I preferred Umami's housemade ketchup, which doesn't cover up the rich flavor of tomatoes with too much sugar. Next, we tasted the Calabrese Burger, a signature menu item that will only be available at the chain's Wicker Park location. The burger itself is actually a Calabrese sausage patty, covered in truffle cheese and aioli (truffles are in just about everything at Umami) and topped with crisp, housemade giardiniera. It was a bit like eating a slightly unwieldy, spicy Italian sausage—an interesting combination, but probably not what a serious burger-lover is looking for.
We finished our meal with the Umami Burger, the culinary creation that launched the restaurant chain. The burger features a medium rare patty topped with a Parmesan crisp, shiitake mushrooms, roasted tomato and caramelized onions—ingredients that help accent the umami taste. The six-ounce beef patty is much smaller than the 12-ounce behemoths served at some of Chicago's most popular burger spots, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for with flavor. Seasoned with a mixture of soy sauce, porcini mushrooms, dried fish and vinegar, the beef is overwhelmingly rich and savory. Umami is serious about the flavor—our server reminded us that there are no topping substitutions.
In addition to its range of burgers and appetizers, Umami Burger also offers a cocktail menu, draft and bottled beer and a selection of wines. We tried the banana-tinged Man in the Yellow Hat whiskey cocktail, but preferred the slightly spicy, bourbon and pineapple juice combination called the Oh, Henry. The draft beer menu included selections from local brewers like Une Annee and Moody Tongue, while the bottle list featured Ballast Point's excellent Sculpin IPA and Victory's Golden Monkey. You can order à la carte, or take advantage of a combo that offers a burger, fries and a beer for $21.50. That might seem a bit pricey, but you won't find a burger quite like this one anywhere else in the city.