In Sydney, the cheeseburger is king. Local demand for the fast-food style American burger took off a few years ago and seems to be only growing in intensity. But aside from the odd special, it’s hard to find anyone doing something different.
Enter bar owners Kerby Craig and Regina Jose, and head chef Joe Siahaan, the team behind Ume Burger at The Streets of Barangaroo. The trio already have form with burgers – in mid-2016 they reinvented their Surry Hills fine-dining restaurant, Ume, as burger-focused venue, Bar Ume. Now they’re further disrupting the US-onslaught with new project, Ume Burger, a venture dedicated solely to Japanese burgers.
“When I tell people I make Japanese burgers,” says Craig, “they automatically have this picture of sushi rice burgers and ramen burgers.” But Siahaan says a Japanese burger is less defined by its ingredients than the approach to its creation. “[The idea is] to refine each element and bring it together into something amazing,” he says.
The pair found inspiration for their burgers on scouting trips to Japan, where Craig says they discovered distinctly different styles of burger. At the top, boutique restaurants that take every possible step to achieve the perfect execution of an American cheeseburger. “Some of the best places look super American-ised,” says Craig, citing the likes of Great Burger, Fellows, and Franklin Avenue. “They've got the flag on the wall and all this kitschy American stuff, but then they take this refined Japanese-style cooking approach, where they get the best tomatoes, and the best bread. Everything has to be as good as it can be.”
The next rung down are chain stores like Mos Burger and Freshness Burger, who use cheaper ingredients but still make burgers with great attention to detail. “The first time I went to Mos Burger I was so intrigued,” says Craig. “There were katsu burgers and meat sauce on a burger. I thought it was awesome. You just wouldn't think about doing that.”
Craig was so struck by his experience at Great Burger that he decided to quit fine-dining and get into the burger game. “Five or six years ago, I wasn't sold on burgers in Australia,” says Craig. “I didn't eat them at all. But then Joe told me I had to go to this one place in Tokyo. I had a burger at Great Burger and had one of those food epiphanies – ‘This is how good a burger can be’. I was a fine-dining chef who never ate burgers; I ate one and changed my entire business model. That’s how good it was.”
Craig says Ume Burger is a meeting of both those influences. “[We’re] like if one of the top burger restaurants in Japan did a take on Mos Burger,” says Craig. “That’s how I think about it … an Australian take on a Japanese take on American burgers.”
At Ume Burger, that translates to creations like a Fish Katsu burger, combining hand-crumbed, tempura-crisp patties, lettuce, American cheese and a tangy tartare sauce; the Menchi Burger, with a pork-katsu patty, lettuce, cheese and tonkatsu sauce (like a Japanese barbeque sauce); the vegetarian Kakiage burger, which has a vegetable fritter, nori mayo, shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce; and the signature Ume Burger, featuring a charred beef patty, a thick slice of truss tomato, mayo and a umami-rich bolognaise-like sauce.
Perhaps the greatest sign of Ume Burger’s devotion to Japanese influence lies in their bun. All Ume Burger buns have been meticulously designed by John Ralley at Textbook Patisserie, in strict accordance with Craig’s memories of the Hokkaido milk buns he tasted in Japan.
Craig says the recipe took about a year and a half to get right. “I feel bad about it,” he says. “Every time I tasted it, I'd say [to Ralley], 'it's just not how I remember it from Hokkaido'. We tried about 20 times until we finally got the recipe to where we want it.” He suggests the process is unlikely to be repeated. “It’s highly guarded now,” he jokes. “Probably because John just doesn't want to make any more.”
It’s a sign of Ume Burger’s desire to provide meals with the same unique care and finesse as the high-class Japanese restaurants that inspired them. “We're using the same suppliers as [we did at the original] Ume restaurant,” says Craig. “I wouldn't have to change much to write a degustation menu. We've just changed the application.”
This article is presented in partnership with The Streets of Barangaroo.