Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Los Angeles Restaurant Reviews: Umami Burger and Sake House Izakaya - Food At Your Fingertips

Every year I spend a week or two visiting family in Los Angeles. Recently we have discovered a couple of new restaurants worth noting on our annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles. Within the same block on La Brea (between 8th and 9th St) are two great restaurants: Umami Burger (an upscale burger joint) and Sake House (a Japanese Izakaya, basically a drinking place with good food, mostly small plates like Tapas).


I usually don't like burger places that have valet parking and an upscale atmosphere. It just doesn't seem right. I also don't really like spending $10+ for a burger, preferring basic burgers like In-n-Out and Five Guys. But in this case the experience of the burgers is worth the price and the upscale approach. Also I love a place that is biologically accurate. Most people only think of four flavors our tongue can detect: sour (a hydrogen ion receptor), salty (a sodium ion receptor), sweet (a sugar receptor) and bitter (actually a collection of related receptors). But there is a fifth class of taste buds on our tongue that has been named "umami," the Japanese word for "meaty." This receptor detects the amino acid glutamate and is the basis for how MSG enhances taste. Umami burger is named for this taste bud and the T-shirts worn by the staff say "The Fifth Taste" on the back. I like scientifically correct restaurants!

The meat is very high quality and seasoned just right. My son likes things as simple as possible and my wife and I like complex. We all were satisfied with the experience. My son ordered (not on the menu) a basic cheese burger with American Cheese they make themselves at Umami Burger. He loved it. I split up his leftovers with my step-daughter, adding some roasted garlic aioli that comes on the side, and it was very nice. That simple burger cost about $9. Worth it? Yeah.

My step-daughter and I split two burgers. First we had a port and Stilton burger (Stilton cheese and port-caramelized onions) which was one of the best things I have ever eaten. At $9 it is definitely worth the experience even though my peasant background prefers paying $5 for a burger. The blend of seasoning, the cheese and the port/onion flavor was perfect.

We also ordered a burger that had three kinds of pork...chorizo, bacon and I think just ground pork. With manchego cheese and other fixings the details of which I've forgotten in a happy cholesterol haze, it was described as "a heart attack on a plate." Something went wrong with the preparation, so it took longer than it should to bring and they apologized and brought us a free dessert to make up for it. But the end result was wonderful.

My wife had the actual eponymous Umami Burger which was very good as well. Also on the menu are a truffle burger, a turkey burger with avocado and a veggie burger with edemame and mushroom with truffle aioli, ricotta cheese and other great stuff.

The thin fries were quite good, though the malt liquor battered onion rings were a tad disappointing. I love onion rings and these didn't work for me as well as I had expected. The dessert we got for free was a fancy version of a Hostess Ho Ho and wasn't bad.

Lunch for 5 of us came to about $75 including tip and drinks. A bit shocking for a burger place but I have to say that we were all very happy and I have certainly seen far worse burgers for the same or more money.


Something that is common in Japan but only recently taking off here in the US is the Izakaya: basically a place to go drinking (mostly beer and sake) but also serves Tapas-style small plates of very good food. You can easily make a good meal of the items served even if you don't drink, though it is also a great way to go out drinking. We went to Sake House for dinner, not drinks, so I can't comment on the quality of their sake. I didn't see my favorite sake (Michisakari) but then again I found that hard to find even in Japan. The beer served was standard Japanese beers, which is about what you would find at an Izakaya in Japan. They also had Shochu (which they call Soju, which I think is the Korean name) which originally was a sweet potato based hard alcohol from Southern Japan (Kyushuu) but which now I think is made from a variety of stuff (rice, barley, etc). Its main defining characteristic is, unlike traditional sake, it is distilled and so stronger than sake.

They try to give a full Japanese experience with the staff yelling "Irasshaimase" as you enter (though they don't have the small curtains most Japanese shops have at their entry way you gently push through). Despite this touch, the staff did not speak Japanese and didn't recognize the Japanese names for menu items. Not a problem...after all we are in California here. The decor is great. Lots of old Japanese posters, Godzilla themes, etc. I especially liked the display case opposite the men's bathroom with lots of cute tchotchkes.

Many of us had the Unagi Bowl (Unadon), which was one of my favorite items in Kyoto where it is a specialty. Basically grilled, teriyaki flavored eel on a bed of simple rice, one of the most satisfying meals I have had. The Unadon at Sake House was very good. I have had much better, but usually at much higher prices (Blue Ribbon Sushi in Brooklyn has some of the best I have had in America). Mediocre Unagi is kind of tough and overdone with the sauce. The Unagi at Sake House was tender and just subtly flavored with the sauce. This was about $7, which is quite cheap for good unagi, but it was a small bowl...which is in line with the Tapas-style of an Izakaya.

I also had vegetable tempura roll, which was tender and perfect. Anything tempura can be too heavy but this was perfect. My wife got the Tiger Roll as well and liked it.

My step-daughter got two O-nigiri, the triangular shaped rice balls wrapped in seaweed which is kind of like the traditional Japanese version of a sandwich and serves as a traveling meal. She got the plum and the salmon ones. Both were very good and it is unusual to find good o-nigiri in America. I should note, though, that her Japanese friend's mother reportedly makes them better. So these aren't quite like momma makes, but they are good for America.

They also have takoyaki, which in Japan is a cheap street food, essentially balls of octopus grilled with a teriyaki sauce. Not my style, but my wife loved it.

Sake House also has a wide variety of Japanese dishes and some Japanese fusion dishes. They have various yakitori--chicken pieces on a skewer...and those pieces can be anything from chicken breast to cartilage and organ meat. Sake House did not have the oddest yakitori I saw in Japan: chicken ovaries. Just as well, as far as I am concerned. They also have many other skewer style foods including one I hadn't seen before: roasted garlic. I was tempted to try it but I stuck with stuff I was confident I'd like and didn't get too experimental. Next time, maybe!

They also had various kimchi items (a Korean influence I saw a lot of in Japan despite the rampant and disgusting Japanese racism against Koreans) and a garlic naan dish, which shows Indian influence I did not see in Japan but may well be a newer trend.

Cost for the 5 of us was just a tad higher than at Umami Burger...close to $80, including tip. My brother commented he could bring himself to pay that for good Japanese food but not burgers even though he liked the burgers at Umami burger. But he is currently less of a burger fan than he once was, so this is personal taste as much as anything.

I suspect both Umami Burger and Sake House will become staples of our annual stay in Los Angeles and I recommend both.

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