LOS ANGELES – The creators of Umami Burger, who boasted of producing a whole new taste and who went on to expand from a single Los Angeles restaurant to a national franchise, are hoping to do the same thing again, this time with chicken. And chocolate.
At ChocoChicken, which is to open in downtown Los Angeles sometime over the next month, there will be white chocolate in the mashed potatoes and dark chocolate in the ketchup. There will be palate-cleansing chunks of chocolate in bowls on the table. There will be whoopie pies for dessert. And there will be, in the defining culinary gesture here, chocolate in the chicken, a marriage of two seemingly disparate tastes consummated in a ceremony of marinating, dusting, frying and rubbing that takes the better part of 24 hours.
“There are two things that everybody likes,” said Keith Previte, a chef who developed the idea and brought it to Adam Fleischman, the founder of Umami Burger. “Chocolate and chicken. And when you combine chicken and chocolate ...”
There will be limits. Fleischman, who stepped down as chief executive of Umami to help lead this latest let’s-invent-a-new-taste mission, promised that at least one dish on the menu will be chocolate-free: the bacon muffins. “We didn’t want to go too far with the chocolate,” Fleischman said a few weeks ago as he scampered around his third-floor cooking loft in Hollywood, preparing to unveil the new dish for an invitation-only group of about 30 people on a sunny afternoon.
Umami Burger opened here in 2009, the name referring to the so-called fifth taste – the other four are sweet, salty, sour and bitter. The hand-ground Umami Burger is served on a slightly sweet bun with caramelized onions, dried tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and shiitake mushrooms. Umami Burger was a case of taste meets marketing, which spawned a chain that today includes outposts in Manhattan and Florida and is celebrated for having one of the best hamburgers in Los Angeles (no small praise).
Fleischman is hoping to do to chicken what Umami did for the burger.
“It’s creating a new taste, but it’s also playing with psychology,” he said, as breasts and thighs sizzled in a vat, perfuming the air with the smell of chicken and, well, sort of chocolate. “When you tell people they are eating chocolate fried chicken, they get a picture of what that looks like. We want to play with that psychology and give them something that doesn’t taste like what they think it’s going to taste like.”
The idea of inventing a taste raises a few eyebrows. “I’ve learned something from doing this for many, many years: It’s almost impossible to create a new flavor,” said Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur. “We are all dealing with the same eight notes in the octave.
“What you can do is present existing flavors in a fresh way, in a fresh context,” he continued. “I would be excited to take a flavor combination I’ve already enjoyed within the context of a Mexican restaurant and see how Adam presents it in a new frame and a fresh light. It will be fun to see how those same flavors translate to a mass audience.”
This is not some meat-meets-sweet fondue concoction: Do not picture a chunky chicken leg dunked in bubbling chocolate.
As Previte and Fleischman explained with the requisite we’re-not-going-to-tell-you-our-secret-formula disclaimer, the dish is the result of an elaborate process. The chicken is steeped in a marinade that includes chocolate, dredged in a flour sifted with chocolate and finally patted down with a rub that includes 17 spices.
The result is neither sweet nor cloying, more reminiscent of a Mexican mole than of a Cadbury bar. It presents itself in waves: heat, salt, sweetness, savory, delivered in moist boneless thighs and bone-in breasts. The chocolate is always there, standing on the sidelines.
“There’s a hundred different ingredients in there,” Fleischman said. “There’s a marinating process, there’s a battering process. We marinate – what, 12 hours, Keith?”
At least 12 hours, Previte said as he kept one eye on the timer as the chicken fried. “You couldn’t figure it out,” he said. “I designed it so nobody could figure it out if they wanted to.”