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Fusion Korean Cuisine That Makes for a Happy Belly

Starting with a food cart business in Golden Gate Park last year, Dennis Lee and his brothers Dan and David have already expanded their empire with Namu, a largely undiscovered, chef's-night-out secret spot. This Inner Richmond family-run restaurant offers a modern twist on classic Korean and Japanese dishes in a sleek, minimalist 40-seat dining room. The décor features local art for sale and a wooden tree, crafted out of a fallen cypress that the brothers found in GGP. In fact, the name Namu, which means “wood” in Korean, was inspired by this tree.

The clean-lined design is the first clue that this restaurant, while using tried-and-true recipes (often from Mom), also accentuates a modern-day sensibility. They import Sumi charcoal from Japan -- which burns hot and almost smokeless for a quick sear -- to use for the grilled items, and chefs Manuel Ek (formerly of Ozumo) and Dennis Lee integrate mostly organic, local ingredients into the dishes.

With many of the marinades coming from Mother Lee’s recipe file and the clean sear of the Sumi coals, it’s easy to see why the grilled plates are the kitchen’s strong suit. No meal is complete without the spicy pork ribs ($10) -- three sizable baby back ribs with tender meat falling off the bone, thanks to a tender sake marinade. The Kalbi-style skirt steak ($11) is traditional Korean barbeque at its best, and showcases yet another Lee-family marinade. Finally, the miso-marinated black cod ($16) is so succulent that it melts in your mouth -- always a table-pleaser.

Protein dishes aside, the veggies from the grill are also satisfying, especially the grilled okra ($5) topped with a saikyo miso aioli. The shiitake dumplings ($9) -- four mushroom-filled dumplings -- arrive swimming in a soupy dashi mushroom broth and is one of the most impressive dishes on the menu. The crispy mung bean cake ($7) was the only disappointment, as ours came a bit overfried. Of course it wasn’t so bad that we couldn’t eat every slice. As far as cold dishes go, the three-sectioned banchan plate ($4, the first one is free) features smoky carrots with black sesame seeds, a sunomono salad of cucumber, seaweed and vinegar, and the spicy housemade kim chi.

On the raw side, the Kona kampachi ($12), with flecks of fleur de sel and yuzu oil, and the albacore tataki ($10) -- seared tuna topped with ponzu and red and green seaweed -- are ocean-fresh and flavorful.

Our curiosity was piqued with the adzuki bean chocolate cupcake ($5), which seemed to fuse East and West along the same lines as Namu’s popular “the burger,” consisting of Niman Ranch ground beef, daikon sprouts, pickled daikon, and soy-glazed onions, among other toppings. The adzuki bean flavor was extremely subtle and the yuzu crème anglaise added a bit of zing. Similarly, the poached peach ($7) was a refreshing blend of ginger gelato and coconut milk over a peach poached in Muscat.

Drink-wise, the sake list covers 16 different selections by the bottle, and 12 by the glass. Infused soju cocktails highlight flavors such as lemongrass and ginger. The wine list covers many from Europe and the southern hemisphere -- France, Spain, Italy, New Zealand and Argentina -- and interestingly didn’t have any from the U.S.

Unfortunately, during one of my visits the restaurant was out of two of the wines that I requested from the list. Our server (Dennis’ wife), however, was apologetic and worked to find us the perfect meal accompaniment. Instead of the Riesling that I was intent on having, I tried Hoyo Kura No Hana, a Daiginjo sake, and will hopefully enjoy the positive affects of the customary sake overflow for good luck and prosperity.

The Inner Richmond might seem like a trek for some, but once inside Namu, the high-quality fare and tony décor make you feel like you could be in Hayes Valley or the Mission -- only without the crowds and long wait.

Inner Richmond

Reservations not needed.