It’s now October, the beginning of the fourth quarter of the year, the last one of the decade. Is that too early to declare a plausible candidate for Restaurant of the Year? Or even City Block of the Year?
Because the former just might be Um.Ma, chef Chris Oh’s new Korean restaurant in the Inner Sunset, while the latter one is indisputably Ninth Avenue, on which Um.Ma is among the newer developments. The single block between Irving Street and the park has seen a new Tartine, plus the brick-and-mortar version of Clara Lee’s Korean “superette” Queens, move in among established heavy-hitters Nopalito, Gordo Taqueria, and Ebisu. (It’s also home to non-culinary institutions Green Apple Books on the Park and the boutique Cary Lane.)
Barely a few months in, Um.Ma — which translates to “mom” — has filled out its own shoes. Oh and a friend built a fire pit from bricks and cement, and that’s where the fish and meat are “hand-fanned” over charcoal. Wall-mounted frames that were empty as recently as late September now contain charming photographs, and there’s a $50 bill under glass with the caption, “This is our first money earned. Our boss just said, ‘Now, let’s just add 6 more zeros to this.’ ” The fire pit’s first fan, looking admirably worse for wear after a month of service, is right next to President Grant. On another wall is a sort of collage of maternity that includes figures from Korean history, comic Ali Wong in Always Be My Maybe, and Marge Simpson (in the style of Girl with a Pearl Earring).
Um.Ma is a big step forward for Korean food in San Francisco, which was scorned and disdained at the beginning of this decade. Oh, an S.F. native who’s worked in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and elsewhere, has clearly pitched this project at a very particular place on the high-low scale, with ’90s hip-hop like a kind of sonic banchan, alongside kimchi and deliriously creamy pickled quail eggs.
It’s not quite upscale, but neither is it self-consciously edgy, forcing us to wade through a tedious distraction: the word “elevated.” When someone describes a restaurant as putting out “elevated [insert ethnicity here] food,” what are they really saying? It’s been placed on a golden dais, to generate buzz? Has it been ripped from the hands of hardworking, first-generation immigrants who cooked for other working-class people and made palatable for folks with more money and different standards? Or was it simply improved, with a close ear toward the aesthetic preferences of elite Yelpers?
Some combination of all three, probably. But while you could debate definitions, it’s indisputable that many of the dishes at Um.Ma are simply extraordinary. At a time when the uppermost echelon of California dining is starting to bore even the professionals who get to eat it for free — Dear Lord — Um.Ma possesses the best currency of all. It’s exciting. And there’s no trace of cynicism or of cashing in.
It’s exciting to dig into the seafood pancake and see just how many shrimp and scallops have been packed into it. Curly scallion shavings are the atlas vertebrae at Um.Ma, giving extra dimension to lots of things, but this just-greasy-enough, just-salty-enough pancake possesses an almost impossible coherence. Shouldn’t it be falling apart under the weight of all its seafood, like a slice of underbaked pie? It’s been crisped to the exact threshold required to keep the whole thing together.
The barbecue portion of the menu is exciting, too. It’s a thrill to serve yourself pieces of garlic-soy kalbi this juicy, or a whole mackerel with just a bit of lemon and soy sauce. (That’s it. It doesn’t need anything else.) Notably crispy fried chicken — arguably the delivery mechanism for this wave of Korean cuisine, starting in the late aughts — comes flecked with cubes of daikon, rather than quarantining them into a separate bowl. The sauce could stand to be spicier — you also don’t get to choose your heat level in the cauldron of soon dubu, or pork-belly-and-tofu soup — but it’s not too sweet, and it appears to have been brushed on with multiple applications.
And about that pork belly: I really have to retract my circa-2016 complaint that it was the most tired, ubiquitous menu item in San Francisco. At Um.ma, it’s fun again.
Beyond the fact that dried shrimp function as a condiment, the contrast between exterior and interior is what characterizes Oh’s dishes. But there are also rice bowls, including the standout Rockin’ Roe, a rice bowl zoned with three types of flying fish eggs plus some salmon roe on top that arrives looking like the 1980s memory game Simon. (The servers, who perform all front-of-house tasks and seem a bit beleaguered during dinner service, will mix it up for you at the table.)
If there was one item lacking in flavor, it was the vegetarian bibimbap, which needed dried shrimp to liven it up, but whose blue rice solidifies to a terrific crunch in the bowl. Looked at another way, it’s more evidence that Oh prizes texture above all else.
With a beer-and-wine liquor license, the focus is on saccharine-sweet flavored soju. Hot off a White Claw tasting, I opted for grapefruit on the grounds that it’s the least sugary, and I think that was a wise choice. All five grape-derived wines come by the bottle or the glass, there is a small selection of Korean wines — baeksuju, an herbal wine, allegedly promotes centenarianism — and for clinking “Geonbae!” under Tommii Lim’s black-and-white murals in the back, there are classic Korean beers Hite and Kloud. Whoever she is, Mom would definitely approve.
Go get those extra zeros.
Um.Ma 1220 Ninth Ave., 415-566-5777 or ummasf.com