Whose Umami? 

click to enlarge umami.jpg

I'm feeling a little jaded these days. Maybe it's the inevitable result of a couple of years of dining out professionally, but I'm pretty bored by most of what I eat. Whenever I'm asked what's new and wonderful, I draw a blank. It's possible I'm suffering from repetitive dining syndrome (RDS), but I seem to see a lot of the same things on menus everywhere. There's always something blackened, always something cooked in a soy-ginger sauce, always something fruity I don't normally think of as fruit-friendly.

It's not just that I keep seeing the same items on the menu (once I saw the same fairly esoteric doughnut-peach-and-goat-cheese appetizer on the menus of two well-known restaurants), but that the food seems to lack the depth of flavor that makes me want to eat more.

We have so many restaurants in Richmond and we seem to be rife with culinary talent. I'm not sure if it's a lack of creativity -- although there is a lot of that going around — but perhaps what's missing lately is the result of inattention.

The taste I love, the taste I crave and search for everywhere I eat, is umami. It's that fifth taste, the one that isn't salty, sour, bitter or sweet. It's the one that's difficult to put into words because we don't have a tradition or vocabulary to talk about it. On a basic level, it's a sort of savoriness that occurs in anchovies or aged Parmesan or a perfectly cooked steak. It's in tomatoes, too, as well as mushrooms and asparagus. Scientists isolated the chemical that makes the flavor a few years ago and found it's an abundance of the amino acid glutamate in a food.

You get more glutamate (technically, it's converted into L-glutamate) the longer you cook foods already rich in umami flavors. This doesn't mean you have to cook all of your food for extended periods of time, but it does mean that for glutamate junkies like me, the addition of a long-simmered, reduced stock to finish off a dish can transform it from ordinary to spectacular.

But first you have to take the time to make that rich stock and think about how one flavor can transform another. With the pressures of staffing, food costs and the day-to-day grind of running a restaurant, this kind of thinking about food may have gotten lost in the quotidian shuffle of ensuring survival in Richmond's competitive restaurant market. When you take shortcuts, it's difficult to produce a flavor that emphatically says delicious each time you lift a fork to your mouth.

You can get that deep, meaty flavor if you go to Can Can and order the duck confit or the grilled hanger steak with bordelaise sauce. LuLu's has it with the corn pudding that accompanies the tilapia, and so does Mama 'Zu if you order anything that comes with marinara. Good long-smoked pulled-pork barbecue always has it, and if you add bacon to a dish, you can kind of fake your way around umami. But it's still difficult to find, and it shouldn't be.

Call me a pie-eyed optimist (actually, don't), but I just can't stop myself from believing that every chef in town understands exactly what I mean by the siren call of umami — and that they too, will be unable to resist its lure for much longer. S

Brandon Fox is also the author of the blog "Brandon Eats" at www.brandoneats.com.



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