Adam Fleischman says he has nothing against restaurant critics.
While preparing his Umami Burger chain in Los Angeles for expansion and developing a new pizza concept, Fleischman found his company in the limelight last month when one of its restaurants, Red Medicine, ejected Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila and posted her photograph online to destroy her long-guarded anonymity.
Fleischman, who is a financial backer in the Beverly Hills restaurant, said he is tired of discussing the issue, saying the decision by his partners in Red Medicine to ask Virbila to leave has been misunderstood as fear of criticism.
“It wasn’t a slight against critics in general. We do want critics in the restaurant, just not this one in particular,” he said. “I just don’t feel she really understands anything other than French or Italian [cuisine].”
The Los Angeles Times' food editor Russ Parsons has said the incident would not change the way it does reviews and the controversy has sparked an ongoing debate about the role reviewers play and the lack of control restaurant operators have over their critics.
Publications like the Los Angeles Times should allow restaurant operators to “opt out of a review,” Fleischman contended. After his first Umami Burger opened in early 2009, he said he asked the Times not review it.
Virbila reviewed Umami Burger anyway, giving a location of the concept one star out of four, which Parsons said is considered very good for a chain with such a limited menu.
The casual-dining burger concept has won raves from other critics as well, most recently last month when GQ food critic Alan Richman named Umami Burger’s signature offering “Burger of the Year,” describing it as a “cross-cultural merger of Japanese ingenuity and American know-how.”
Umami Burger taps what the Japanese refer to as “the fifth taste,” ingredients that evoke a savory deliciousness that comes from glutamate and other naturally occurring elements in certain foods.
With four Umami Burger locations open and a fifth scheduled to open this month in the Los Angeles area, Fleischman said his next step is to take the concept to San Francisco, where a lease is close to being finalized for an opening later this year.
Fleischman said he is also developing a fast-casual version of the concept that will become a national brand.
A private-equity investor, which Fleischman would not yet identify, has committed capital to grow a modified version of the Umami Burger chain that will be modeled along the lines of a Chipotle, with a limited menu and a $7 to $8 price point.
The fast-casual variant also will offer tabletop self-ordering technology with a more standardized décor package and emphasis on environmentally friendly materials, he said.
As many as 10 Umami Burgers are expected to open each year over the next three years, Fleischman said.
Also this year, Fleischman is planning to launch a new Neapolitan pizza concept called 800˚ featuring a style of pie cooked in wood-burning ovens that he said can be found in New York but not in Los Angeles. The name is a reference to the pizza’s cooking temperature.
The first location is scheduled to open in late spring in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles near UCLA. Partners with Fleischman in the concept are Anthony Carron, a former corporate chef for Michael Mina’s Mina Group restaurants, and Allen Ravert, who is also on the Umami Burger team.
Fleischman is designing the 800˚ concept as a chain to “bring Neapolitan pizza to the masses” at around $10 per pizza. The concept will also offer a different delivery model that the company is not ready to reveal. “It’s a totally new way to deliver pizza,” he said.
The three brands will be brought under what Fleischman has created as Umami Restaurant Group, based in Los Angeles.
Red Medicine is a “one-off labor of love” that Fleischman backed because he is a fan of chef Jordan Kahn, a young up-and-comer whose first job out of Johnson & Wales at age 17 was as a pastry chef at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.
Kahn also worked on the opening team at Keller’s Per Se in New York, and he later worked as a pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago and for the Mina Group in Los Angeles at the restaurant XIV.
The managing partner of Red Medicine is Mina Group alum Noah Ellis, who was a beverage director for Mina’s 17 restaurants.
A casual-dining venue with a funky vibe in the humble southeast corner of Beverly Hills, Calif., Red Medicine features a Vietnamese-inspired menu with shareable plates that Fleischman said are “geared toward the more adventurous eater.”
Dinner menu options, for example, include Blue Lantern Bay scallops with braised radishes, beurre blanc, fish sauce, sea buckthorn and nasturtium for $18; or sweet breads with Vietnamese curry, yam, tumeric root jam and sawtooth on a baguette for $17.
The critic “outing” has sparked a lively interplay of Yelp postings, both supportive and damning, for Red Medicine, and food bloggers have described the incident as “arrogant,” “vengeful” and “petty.”
Still, more traditional reviews of the restaurant itself are coming.
In one of the first this week, Jay Weston for The Huffington Post was positive, calling Red Medicine “the most exciting new restaurant in concept and execution to hit the Los Angeles culinary scene in many years.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Los Angeles Times gave Umami Burger 3.5 five stars out of five. The review actually gave a location of Umami Burger one star out of four.
Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]n.com.