The Fifth Element

You know the moment. The “wow” eye bulge across the table as you and your friend, both nodding, mouths full, silently agreeing that you’ve both bitten into something amazing. Your immediate thought: What the hell is this and why am I so happy right now? In all these cases, chances are good that you’ve experienced that nexus of culinary heaven, where salty, sweet, sour and spicy meet with something even greater, umami. 

There’s a reason why certain pairings – like ketchup, mustard, and pickles – have been around seemingly forever. Umami. Pronounced oo-MAH-mee, it’s the fifth taste to the core four of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It describes a savory quality that is simply delicious, and it’s a flavor for which people are clamoring. This indescribable flavor has always been there, it’s just now we have a fancy name for it. You can thank Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist in 1908 for identifying it and giving it a name, and scientists in 2002 for proving he was right.

Umami is found in protein, as well as in tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, and more. These all contain an amino acid called glutamate – once released, through browning, pickling, fermenting, or aging, it creates a deep savory flavor.  And when multiple umami components find their way into a single bite, it increases the sensation exponentially.  While this is not a new concept, the elusive umami has been enthusiastically adopted by the craft food movement. Local restaurants are finding ways to incorporate this addicting element into their dishes, largely through house-made condiments. Here they can put their own stamp on a classic. “You can get a burger and fries anywhere,” says Nick Pennino, general manager of Kraft House No. 5 in Powell. “But garlic fries with spicy tomato aioli? Now that’s something special.”

Crafting house condiments takes time, testing, and a perfect mix of flavors. “It’s that combination of sweetness, richness, and spice … a good dish is only as good as the sum of its parts,” says Pennino. Kraft House takes pride in creating completely house-made components like their spicy tomato aioli, or the bourbon honey, featured with smoked gouda and caramelized leeks, sandwiched between brioche. This is not your typical grilled cheese, people. And that’s what the craft approach aims to do – Pennino shared that they “want to make food that’s relatable to the customer, but still a unique experience.”

“Columbus is heading in that direction,” says Tyler Minnis of Angry Bear Kitchen, referring to the changing food scene, where customers are searching out unique local experiences. He went on to explain that he and fellow chef/owners Daniel Scalzo and Jarod Norris essentially make everything in house. “When you go out to eat, you try to find something you can’t do at home … customers are searching out these kinds of places.” The result? More fermented and funky umami than you can shake a “Fermentation for Dummies” book at. Take their house made kimchee. Heads of Napa cabbages are transformed every couple months into spicy and pungent kimchee, aging for weeks. “It gets better the longer it sits,” Minnis says proudly. Their bread and butter pickles made on premises right along with a bacon jam make for charbroiled burger perfection.

It’s clear that umami is addicting for these chefs. For Matt Heaggens, chef de cuisine at Flatiron Bar & Diner, it’s a passion for pickling and fermentation. “Our pickles are the crank!” were his exact words, and he’s not joking. If you’ve never had a pickled grape before, you’ll be wondering why after one bite. Heaggens emphasized crafting condiments in house allow specificity; beer mustard is paired with house made pastrami; pickled veggies like green beans and beets go perfectly with a rich giardiniera house ranch. “We just want to do the best job we can,” says Heaggens, quick to add that he wants to take part in educating diners, helping them to step outside the norm, try something new.

It’s these unexpected, yet oddly familiar, flavor combinations that have our Columbus-based, craft-focused restaurants drawing customers from all over the state, and country. “We want customers to leave the meal surprised,” says Seth Lassak, Executive Chef of Wolf’s Ridge Brewing. Think steak and eggs is boring brunch fare? Think again. At Lassak’s hand, the classic dish is far from what you’d expect, with meltingly tender beef tartare next to their habanero mustard, banana ketchup and a playful egg bottarga (cooked egg yolk crumbled with tobiko fish eggs). Customers are certainly surprised, but more importantly, they leave happy and wanting more.

As the fifth element slides its way into dishes familiar – hamburgers – and new – bottarga – there will certainly be many, many more happy, eye-bulging moment in restaurants all over the city.

Try out some the umami magic at: Kraft House #5, 5 S. Liberty St., Powell Angry Bear Kitchen, 2653 N. High St.