Amid the upscaling that has swept nearly every Asian cuisine into a wave of fusion-heavy small plates, Korean food has been the exception in San Francisco, remaining stubbornly anchored to its traditional moorings in the no-frills barbecue joint, or kalbi jib. That is, until Namu opened just over a year ago and unveiled a menu that breaks the mold spectacularly by refining the look of the food while maintaining many of the traditional flavors.
Set on an otherwise quiet stretch of Balboa Street in the Inner Richmond, Namu presents itself with a look and feel that is dark, urbane, and minimalist. Although compact, the space is perfectly suited for the refined fusion dining that's its calling card, as well as its sideline as a haven for late-night DJing and the attendant fashionable young things the entertainment attracts (it stays open until 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday). Like the decor, the servers are darkly outfitted, smooth, and effective: warm without being gushy, helpful without overexplaining.
This night, a large flat-screen TV set high above the fronting bar silently beams Kurosawa's Seven Samurai over some very choice lounge and trip-hop tunes. Behind the business of tending bar, the open kitchen whirrs with the machinations of dinner service. It's a smoothly buttoned-down chaos calmly overseen by chef Dennis Lee, who owns the restaurant with his brothers, David and Daniel. Many of the recipes are taken from their mother's kitchen.
The dinner menu splits into four categories of small plates and seven "soups and salads" — though there's only one soup, a traditional Japanese miso ($2), along with a crowd of mostly Japanese-leaning salads. "Raw plates" boasts a handful of tempting seafood offerings including Hog Island oysters ($2.75 apiece), scallop carpaccio ($10), a seared tombo tuna tataki ($12), and daily-rotating sashimi crudo ($12) and tartare dishes ($11), all brightly dressed in shades of citrus and chile. "Namu plates" carries variations on tried-and-true fried favorites like dumplings ($9), tempuras ($8), and more adventurous dishes like crispy mung bean cake ($7) and a braised daikon medallion ($9). "Grilled à la carte" is the largest section, and rightly so: This is where that most identifiable of Korean cooking implements, the charcoal grill, makes its mark in dishes like spicy pork ribs marinaded in kojichan sake ($15), line-caught Bodega Bay black cod ($18), and a Niman Ranch burger topped with pickled daikon and soy-glazed onions ($12).
The menu elegantly straddles several fusion labels with a tactful balance of Japanese and Korean flavors, giving grateful nods along the way to another dining trend: the small plate. In this case, however, the small plate seems modeled as much on the trendiness of Japanese izakaya or Spanish tapas as it is on the Korean tradition of panchan, those blessedly never-ending dishes of fiery and tart kimchi and pickled vegetables that accompany almost every meal. By keeping one foot solidly planted in the taste and the look of Korean cuisine, Namu demonstrates a thoughtful approach to fusion too often forgotten by other restaurants in the race to drag traditional food into the fine dining scene: It isn't just the flavors that need blending and balance, it's the presentation as well. Likewise, the opening shot of every meal is a complimentary three-sectioned panchan plate piled with housemade kimchi, thinly sliced cucumbers, and julienned carrots, the last two treated to a drizzle of sesame oil and studded with black sesame seeds. While the kimchi looks nearly indistinguishable from the stuff at any Korean barbecue joint, there's an amped-up fire and tart in Namu's, bespeaking the expert hand of a chef who knows exactly when the kimchi is at its peak and enjoys it hotter and more "mature" than most local Korean spots.
The bi bin kooksoo salad ($9) arrived in a flash, barely allowing any time to wish for another stack of kimchi to devour, or to groan about the $4 charge for another round of panchan, which usually comes free. Maybe that's how Namu's owners are paying for the impressive glass-and-bamboo-banded walls in the positively spa-like restroom. (Hand-washing never felt so Zenlike as over Namu's sink, filled with tumbled river stones preserved in resin.) But back to the salad: Bedded with mops of cold, chewy soba noodles and chopped romaine, it came crowned with tantalizing shots of kimchi, pine nuts, immaculately soft cubes of tofu, and cucumber, lightly tossed with a kimchi sesame dressing. With so much kimchi flying around, it's a wonder the dish wasn't consumed in the fire, but, as Namu shows with aplomb, balance can be struck, even working within these fiercely untamed flavors. Instead, the kimchi takes a mellow back seat to the salad's textural ride.
It was from the "Namu plates" section of the menu that both the greatest and weakest offerings of the dinner emerged. The Ika fry ($8) was a serviceable plate of Monterey calamari, not too chewy or overly battered, but nothing special, a monochrome spot on a menu otherwise blazing with color and originality. Substitute a ramekin of reheated marinara for the zippy kimchi tartar, and it could as easily have found a home at any sports bar in town.
Also calling to mind the sports bar menu, yet leaving it far behind in a trail of mediocrity, were jumbo chicken wings ($10 for six). They're a distant cry from the sauce-and-batter-drenched monstrosities known as Buffalo wings. Namu dishes its wings up in the classic Korean style: lightly seasoned with delicate, paper-thin skin that crackles seductively over the moist meat waiting inside like a wrapped gift. Lash them with a ribbon of the sweet Thai chile sauce they're paired with, and you may decide to avoid dessert altogether and opt for another few orders to go. A test of their integrity as leftovers seems in order, and word has it they hold up magnificently overnight in the fridge.
Of course, all of this creates quite a thirst, and Namu's drink menu doesn't disappoint. It's a whirlwind tour of more than 30 sakes, sojus, and wines by the glass with a signature selection of fresh fruit- and tea-infused soju. The mango-strawberry infusion ($7) proved clean and understated, with just a hint of fruity acid.
The tartare ($11) — bigeye tuna sashimi this evening — was presented as a neat island, minced and ruddy pink, carpeted on top with ribboned chives, daikon, and a sprinkling of crunchy baby rice crackers (bubu arare). The whole affair was centered in a puddle of wasabi oil ponzu sauce spiked with Korean chile flakes. Crunchy baby romaine hearts linger nearby, perfect for scooping up a dose of the mixture. Once again chef Lee's steady hand was on full display, able to stoke the heat with wasabi and chile while simultaneously dousing it with the tart and soy of ponzu without ever losing the whiff of the tuna's ocean breeze.
For all the light and airy acrobatics with fish and fryer, no Korean menu should stray far from the scent of charring meat and live fire, long the linchpin of Korean barbecue joints. In the "grilled à la carte" section, Namu has fared well in preserving the heart of those flavors without sacrificing too much in the process of refinement. Alas, there is no tableside grill, and no plates piled high with marbled cuts of raw beef and pork. On the plus side, you won't spend the rest of the night smelling like a campfire. It's a fair trade.
The Niman Ranch Kobe skirt steak ($19) clung tantalizingly close to its roots, grilled medium rare and marinated in a familiar Korean kalbi sauce with soy, garlic, green onion, sesame, and sugar. A slice-it-yourself slab would be preferable to the carved presentation. But that's a quickly forgotten trifle once the mingling flavors activate your primal carnivorous impulse and all brain function is rendered useless, save for wondering when the next bite or shot of soju from Namu's brilliant arsenal will arrive.
Welcome to upscale Korean food. It's nice to have you.