I love surprises. Like finding money in pockets or an old purse, and boy, do I remember the joy of tax returns (and miss them). Finding a parking space in North Beach always feels like a surprise. Guys who call the next dayâ¦ I wish that wasn't a surprise. (But most women can testify that it usually is.) And restaurant surprises, hell, it's a big reason why I do what I do--I relish the hunt (and sometimes hunt some relish).
Not sure why it took me so long to visit ~NAMU~ in the Inner Richmond. Maybe I was trying to forget I knew about it and surprise myself? Namu is a total gem of a restaurant--one that I know some local chefs enjoy (sorry guys, I'm writing it up) and is now on my list of joints I'm fired up about.
The place is small, but big on style: it sports a dark and sleek vibe, Danish modern Arne Jacobsen butterfly chairs, an open kitchen, moody urban photos that reminded me of Todd Hido's work, floors of hand-carved oak, and a five-seat wood bar made from a tree that fell in Golden Gate Park, which inspired the name (namu means tree in Korean). Wait until you see the minimalist Zen spa bathroom, with a resin-covered rock and bamboo sink, with bamboo walls layered with bands of glass--it wins for one of the city's best loos (although Gary Danko's shoe polisher is hard to beat).
I am anti flat-screen TVs, especially in non-sports bar restaurants, but at least this one was playing an arty samurai flick, Sword of Doom. The music was good--a combo of jazz and some Ninja Tunes tracks and pop--they actually have DJs Thursday through Saturday nights, although I have no idea where they put them.
Brothers Dennis and David Lee of Happy Belly food carts are behind Namu, crafting a mostly Japanese menu with Korean and California flair. A meal starts with a complimentary trio of banchan of house-made kimchee, some of the best I've tasted in a while, alongside some cucumber and seaweed, and carrot. We ordered four ridiculously fresh Sweetwater oysters from Hog Island (yeah, oyster season!), and played with combos of yuzu ponzu and daikon, and our fave, lemon and chojang Korean chili sauce.
The menu is a small plates format (I know, I know, but it's really good food!), ranging from six Fulton Valley chicken wings ($10) to all kinds of seafood, like one night's special crudo of Kona Kampachi and chili oil, or Hog Island sake-steamed Manila clams ($15), or scallop carpaccio ($8) with a yuzu vinaigrette. We tried the tai snapper ceviche ($10) served in crispy gyoza wrapper cups, but found the flavors a bit muddled and the presentation a little "classic buffet party appetizer" compared to the clarity and artfulness of everything else.
Who can resist dumplings? Resistance is futile. The shiitake dumplings ($9) come four to an order, with a dusting of nori on top. They were simple and delicate, but what knocked our socks off was the fab broth--if only there was a way to mop it all up. (We asked for spoons, it was that good.)
It ends up the Lees' mother, who started the restaurant bug in the family back east, is a master of sauces. A sauce meister. Her recipe is behind the kalbi-style skirt steak ($11), a delicious serving of perfectly tender and medium rare steak sporting that unmistakable Korean BBQ flavor, but how handy, you don't have to go home smelling like a barbecue. The steak was so juicy and savory--the sole flaw was just a little too much of mom's good marinade. The three spicy pork ribs ($10) with fried leeks had a killer sake marinade--these meaty numbers disappeared quickly.
We also lost it over the black cod ($16) that a Bodega Bay fisherman line catches for the restaurant. It was a generous portion, and the fish was so fresh and dense, with a lightly caramelized crust. The cod is skewered and cooked over Sumi charcoal, not grilled, so the smoky flavor is subtle and haunting. We tried a side of the Brussels sprouts, which had a total new winning addition for me: bonito flakes! The smaller sprouts were cooked best, the larger ones were a touch underdone.
The dessert of kabocha chawan mushi ($7) had good flavors, but was undercooked and not worth the price tag--I'd opt for a glass of the Kamoizumi Komemoke from Hiroshima instead. (I also know someone who loves the chocolate brioche, which feels a little out of step with the menu, but hey, chocoholics don't care about these things.)
Dennis Lee, the head chef, is a total talent, and I hear he is occasionally joined by Taka from Ozumo on Saturdays and Sundays--these guys really rock it. Our server Sarah was quite knowledgeable about all the sakes, and friendly. I plan to return for the burger (it comes with sliced pickled daikon) or the stonepot rice with egg for lunch, which sounds like a version of bi bim bap.
I hear brunch is really good too--ranging from three kinds of Benedicts to a fried egg sandwich with soy-glazed onions to loco moco (Niman Ranch beef patty topped with two eggs and gravy over rice). Might be an ideal time for the lightly effervescent sake, the Tedorigawa Arabashiri Namazake from Ishikawa.
The sake list is fun to explore--after doing a tasting of five, our fave was the food friendly and nutty Chikurin Fukamari ($8.50), an organic sake from Okayama. Delicious with red meat. There is also Koshihikari Echigo, a light lager ($8/17 oz.) that easily went down the hatch, and Orion ($7/22 oz.) beer from Okinawa, which I have only seen at Sebo.
There are a number of wines by the glass, some lovely teas, and my favorite, at least five infused sojus behind the bar, including the Thai chili (do it!), and the pu-er tea-infused one which will really get you going. Like, hi-yah!
This place would be great for a date, or a small group of friends, like four folks. I also think you could cheat with someone here because it's a bit off the beaten path. (Not like I'm encouraging cheating or anything.) And here's the big bonus: they are open until 1am Thursday-Saturday. Like, wow, great chow until 1am, and no drive-thru or pizza? Sign me up.
Parking in this neighborhood is a beast, which is why I happily rode my bike here through Golden Gate Park. But the owners plan to start offering valet parking Friday-Sunday, and supposedly Mondays aren't too painful. But you know, I'd circle around for half an hour, the place is so worth it.
439 Balboa St.
Cross: 6th Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94118
Thu-Sat until 1am
Small plates $6-$15