Back to Namu in San Francisco
Making the rounds of Tamarine, Heaven’s Dog, and Namu, last week seemed to be themed Asian Modern. Of the three, my dinner at Namu was the most delicious to me. Considering that I wasn’t hungry in the least after a three-hour, 30-course tasting menu lunch with 16 wines at Jai Yun, the quality of Namu’s cooking is even more of a stand-out. In fact, I didn’t even want to be there or look at food, but duty called with friends visiting from Healdsburg eager to take me out. With just the length of time of a Muni ride between locations, soon I was facing another selection of small plates.
Once again, the complimentary plate with three tastes of banchan was lovely. Sesame-scented bean sprouts and spicy cabbage kimchee flanked my favorite, the thin slices of yellow summer squash and zucchini marinated in rice wine vinegar.
Ika fry (fried calamari) was one of the specials of the day, and a must order when available. Made with sweet fresh squid, not frozen, and the lightest flakiest batter. The kicker is the remoulade-like spicy tartar sauce spiked with kimchee. The presentation was less tricked out this time, no confetti of colorful peppers, yet again was the best fried squid I’ve ever had.
Their last visit, I’d sent my friends to The Richmond, down the street, for the excellent hamburger. I insisted on ordering the burger here, my current favorite in the City, for comparison. Cooked to a perfect rosy rare, the Niman Ranch burger had been cut into three pieces secured with cocktail picks by the kitchen. The bincho charcoal grilling added such a delicious flavor highlight. The bun seemed different, maybe less dense and more golden rather than brown, but no less tasty. Rather than fries, we opted for the side salad of baby mustards swathed with a spicy, overpowering red dressing, the one real misstep in this meal. The burger was gloriously juicy and almost decadent garnished with soft carmelized onions, daikon sprouts, and a sliced of pickled daikon. We almost let the slab of heirloom tomato go, but luckily our busser insisted that we not let him take it away. He was right, it was a terrific early season tomato.
Then a new item on the menu, guanciale with long beans and tofu sesame sauce. The Korean red chili threads were a new one for me, making a fine, filigreed garnish on the colorful plate. Cubes of guanciale were meltingly tender and gushing with porcine fatty richness inside their crispy shells. Chewy earthy batons of giant mushroom, firm and crisp Chinese long beans, raw peppery daikon sprouts, and crushed nuts with the crispy guanciale might sound chaotic, but believe me all those textures and flavors worked together most deliciously.
The comforting stonepot rice, topped with a gloriously soft and runny farm egg was enhanced with the supplemental Niman "kobe" steak option. The vegetables of the day, each cooked to its own individual best, couldn’t have been fresher. The grilled steak was presented bloody rare and became a bit more done from the heat of the bowl. The rice could have been crispier on the bottom, but all was good blended with the red chili sauce. The care of the prep, tuning of the sauce, timing on the steak, and the quality of the produce, egg and meat sourcing turned this simple homestyle dish into a major “wow”. My friends had never had stonepot rice before, and I warned them that they’d probably be disappointed ordering this anywhere else.
When the lamb chops with Thai basil pesto came out, the aroma was so ravishing, I wished that I had room for more than just a bite. I can’t say enough about the quality of grilling here and the bincho charcoal effect. Cooked medium rare with a bit of the fat around the rim, then swathed in pesto and topped with roasted pine nuts, plus a little dab of sambal on the plate, the lamb lollipops were just great. Mingled with the two sauces, even the little pile of sprouts became a special treat.
Last dish was grilled eggplant topped with shavings of bonito. As the heat rises from the plate, the bonito flakes dance and bobble. The man at the table next to us came over to inspect this dish, saying "something's moving".
I was a cheap date this time. If I’d been ready for a full meal, we probably would have ordered eight or nine plates instead of just six. Namu’s at the top of its game and getting better.
My earlier posts on Namu:
Happy Hour Loco Moco @ Namu in San Francisco
Happy Belly Dog (Kimchi! Kewpie!) in Golden Gate Park
Hi, I saw your review and wanted to thank you for the recommendation. Here is my report of my meal last night with my wife:
Went last night and it was pretty good, there were some small service issues and some of the dishes weren't as good as they should have been. This review reads as critical, but it is just being picky and I would definitely go back (for calibration - this is my idea of a 4/5 star review).
First, they forgot our inital banchan… we only found out at the end when we noticed the entry on the bill. It is sort of like the restaurant that waits 'til you order to bring bread - cheesy and cheap. Just bring the stuff out. Also 3 banchan is skimpy and there was no indication of whether or not you would get free refills on those three.
Water was not refilled promptly (they didn't leave a pitcher - something that is fine at this price point).
The ika tempura dish we both found greasy and heavy - not tempura like at all, more like fish and chips - and the dipping mayo sauce didn't go far enough on the kim chi side. The squid itself was fresh and it was sad to see it ruined that way.
The korean tacos were delicious - but again, the kim-chi flavor was mild and the seaweed tasted more like high quality Japanese nori rather than the salty yummy Korean gim. Also, the seaweed didn't really hold together well enough to eat them like a taco.
The stone pot rice was very good but really just a depressingly conventional bi bim bop with better quality meat and fresher sauce. How about a bit more adventure in the vegetables - e.g. some purslane for a bit of citrus crisp? The tofu bits were good but perhaps cut a bit too small to really add any substance. The rice quality itself was superlative. They also only gave one spoon to mix it all up.
Finally, the Japanese Echigo beer made with koshihikari was at least Japanese (unlike Sapporo in the US which is rebranded Molson) but also a bit conventional in flavor. I think they would be better off with some of Hitachino's brews or Yebisu if there isn't a craft Korean scene. Didn't get to the Soju cocktails but since they were made with something called Han Asian Vodka instead of real Soju - I couldn't say that I had any interest either.
Overall I found it a very successful fusion of Korean food - but there were small issues with each dish. It seems like the chef is trying to really tone down some of the more interesting sides of Korean food. If there audience is non-Korean savvy, that is fine, but then they should be more generous with the water, they should mix up the bi bim bop table side, and definitely put some more mild banchan out there. If they are going for the interesting twist angle, it would be nice to see some different variations of kim chi in different dishes and be a bit more aggressive on experimenting. Also, real Soju would be nice, and a selection thereof would be better.
While these cubes of pork were listed as guanciale on the menu, I'm not certain that they really are. They didn't really taste cured or of guanciale seasoning, though it's not easy to tell after they're fried like this. From the texture and richness, I do believe it was the guancia (cheek) cut.