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Brains and brawn

  • Cone O' Cracklins, a snack of fried pig's ears, from Umamicatessen.
Cone O' Cracklins, a snack of fried pig's ears, from Umamicatessen. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

Everyone knows that Langer's serves the best pastrami sandwich in town. Guidebooks say so. National magazines say so. The subway disgorges so many Langer's-bound fressers that it has sometimes been called the Pastrami Express. Many of us think Langer's serves the best pastrami sandwiches in the United States and consider any variance from its formula to be something close to heresy.

The idea of a pastrami sandwich at Umamicatessen, Adam Fleischman's new deli on the edge of downtown's Jewelry District, may border on the heretical even without the Langer's comparisons. The deli, for one thing, which is identified on the menu as Cure, is only one of the stations in the restaurant, which is basically a branch of Fleischman's popular Umami Burger that also incorporates kitchens specializing in doughnuts, coffee, booze and pork.

The sandwich itself, designed by Micah Wexler of Mezze, the swank Middle Eastern restaurant on La Cienega's Restaurant Row, is fairly spectacular, reimagined as a kind of steak sandwich. The meat is sliced at least a quarter-inch thick, laid out in orderly rows instead of being arranged into the customary wedge on the rye bread, and seasoned with seeded Dijon mustard instead of the customary splash of the brown stuff. I'm not saying it is the best pastrami sandwich in Los Angeles, but it is the first sandwich I have encountered in a lifetime of pastrami eating that might keep Norm Langer up at night.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, May 17, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Umamicatessen: A review of Umamicatessen restaurant in the May 12 Saturday section said that the restaurant's pastrami sandwich was created by Micah Wexler. It was created by Adam Fleischman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, May 19, 2012 Home Edition Saturday Part E Page 5 Food Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Counter Intelligence: A May 12 review of Umamicatessen restaurant stated that the pastrami sandwich was created by Micah Wexler. It was created by Adam Fleischman.

Instead of an egg cream (there are no egg creams), you are invited to sip on bacon-infused bourbon garnished with fried slivers of pig's ear. If you want fries with your sandwich, you can have them moistened with pickled Italian peppers, pureed ham, and an unlovely concoction of aioli and whipped pig's brains the house has dubbed Brainaise.

Umamicatessen may not be the single least-kosher restaurant in town -- that would be the swine-intensive bistro Animal, whose lease actually prevents it from competing with the observant Fairfax District establishments that surround it -- but it is probably the least-kosher restaurant where it is possible to get a bowl of chicken soup, a corned beef sandwich and a knish. Fleischman joins the Gorbals' Ilan Hall (Manischewitz-braised pork belly) and Lukshon's Sang Yoon (Shanghai matzo ball soup), as well as Mezze's Wexler, who rocked a recent Cochon 555 event with pork-belly shawarma, pork-liver pastrami and pig's blood cake with challah, in the cult of the Sacrilicious.

All the dishes at the restaurant are listed on a single, place-mat-sized menu. From the dining room, which is ringed by the individual open kitchens -- the Umami Burger preparations come from a separate kitchen in the back -- you can order any of it: a blandly pleasant chicken salad with grapes from Cure, a turkey burger with green goddess dressing from Umami Burger or a glass of Bittberger pilsner from the bar.

In the first few weeks, a lot of the foodist attention was focused on Pigg, a restaurant within a restaurant from Chris Cosentino, a chef known in San Francisco for his preparations of fish heads and turkey lungs at the restaurant Incanto and his cured meats at Boccalone in the Ferry Building Marketplace, where the most popular dishes include sno-cone cups filled with mortadella and lardo instead of sweetened ice. And some of the most obvious pleasures of Umamicatessen do come from Pigg: angular metal vases, like Art Deco artifacts, fitted with brown paper and filled with things like crunchy fried pig's ears; rosemary-scented popcorn cooked in lard instead of oil; or fluffy, crunchy wisps of fried pigskin -- cracklings -- nearly as profound as the ones you may have enjoyed at Jazz Fest in New Orleans.

House-cured lardo (think meaty butter) and rillettes are served in tiny metal cans, opened with great ceremony at table. There is a sweetly funky country pork terrine; an elegant submarine sandwich with long-braised trotters and tongue made along the lines of a Vietnamese banh mi -- the Hoof and Mouth -- and a surprisingly crowd-friendly take on the Sicilian sandwich vastedde, with sharp cheese, thinly sliced onions and a skinny slab of spleen.

There are 17 kinds of ham at Pigg, most of them displayed in a Ham Tower -- basically a kinetic sculpture crafted from glass, steel and pig -- and for that alone we should be grateful to Cosentino. It is possible to find Parma prosciutto and San Daniele prosciutto all over Los Angeles, and jamon serrano from Spain isn't rare, but it is hard to think of more than a couple of restaurants that feature even one country ham from America's mid-South, much less half a dozen.

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