February 2, 2007

UPDATE (February 2007): For additional information, please make sure to check out the comments. Namu’s co-owner Dennis Lee was nice enough to drop by and leave some information on future plans for this restaurant.

UPDATE (May 9, 2007): We’ve made a return visit to Namu, this time at dinner, and this second visit has resulted in an update of the original star rating. What follows below is the original review, and please click here for the most recent review.


Namu is a new Asian fusion restaurant which opened in early December 2006 on Balboa, in the Inner Richmond. This restaurant is the latest venture by Dennis Lee and Manuel Ek Chel, the former executive chef of the snazzy, trendy Japanese restaurant Ozumo, on the Embarcadero. Though Namu’s small size and humble location are very different from Ozumo, the clean, modern lines in the decor at Namu are a stylish departure that definitely does not typify this generally quiet, mostly residential section of the Richmond District. The space is well designed, and the windows let in a lot of natural light. An added bonus is that the restroom is probably one of the nicest restaurant restrooms we’ve ever seen.

Putting Namu into the cuisine category of Asian Fusion/Pan-Asian may not be quite right, but it was the closest fit we could think of for a category that would also be applicable to other restaurants. The menu has a variety of smaller plates and fuller entrees which are prepared with what is best described as “Asian flair”, primarily through the use of appropriate sauces — such as a skirt steak with a Korean barbecue marinade, or the oysters with yuzu ponzu — or with certain key ingredients, such as the addition of kaiware and pickled daikon to the burger. With the exception of a couple dishes such as tempura, and the ubiquitous miso marinated black cod, very few of these dishes would be found on a more traditional menu. One noteworthy point is that the restaurant’s grill uses sumi charcoal imported from Japan, so we guess there is something authentic backing up this establishment. They also have a short selection of some teas that are more interesting than just a standard green tea. We ordered a pot of the jasmine pearl tea ($3 for the pot), which used jasmine-scented green tea leaves; it was a smooth and fragrant tea.

The “Asian flair” that is imparted to dishes at Namu is primarily Korean and Japanese, with a splash of Vietnamese thrown in for good measure; Vietnamese only because of the fresh roll appetizer, which we ordered on our recent lunch visit to Namu:


Sometimes, it seems that there is an agreement among restaurants that serves contemporary Asian or Asian-inspired cuisine that any such restaurant absolutely must offer a dish which is a twist on goi cuon, the traditional Vietnamese fresh spring roll. Namu does not violate this agreement; their version does not feature shrimp or pork, but rather a grilled skirt steak, wrapped in the expected rice paper, and accompanied by the expected assortment of rice noodles, Thai basil, cilantro, mint and carrot. Sometimes, these goi cuon-inspired dishes turn out to be disappointing flops that do not do justice to the excellent simplicity of the original, but in this case, we will say that we were pleased with Namu’s rendition. The ingredients in the roll were fresh, and the grilled skirt steak (not surprising, given the cut) was quite flavorful. In addition, the meat in the roll was complemented very nicely by the hoisin-like plum and chili dipping sauce with which the roll was served. The fact that a tougher skirt steak cut was used made it somewhat difficult to split the meat part of the roll into more than one bite. In addition, the construction of the roll was not expert. Still, we would call this dish a success, flavor-wise.

The main event of this lunch was the fish sandwich,


which featured a tilapia filet fried in Panko breadcrumbs. Though we chose to have a green salad on the side, one could also order this sandwich with French fries — and the same is true of the burger. The “Asian accent” of this dish is provided by the Panko breadcrumbs, and also the kimchee tartar sauce which dresses the sandwich. All in all, this was a nice sandwich. To our taste, the kimchee tartar sauce was a bit too light on flavor, and definitely could have used an extra kick to brighten and liven up this sandwich. On the other hand, we certainly had no trouble tasting the light fish through the sauce. It was a nice, light meal, with unassertive but pleasing flavors.

To sum up, Namu generally has a pleasant environment, and the service was friendly and helpful. In addition, while the food was not amazing or even really memorable, it was certainly good. So why only 2.5 stars? We debated for awhile as to whether or not Namu deserved 2.5 or 3 stars, and in the end, we (clearly) settled with the 2.5 stars, because this cuisine simply is not challenging enough. In some sense, the whole point behind putting a modern spin on traditional recipes (as Namu does) is to create, new unexpected flavors — in other words, to challenge the diner’s senses with something, well, new and unexpected. However, Namu’s menu almost seems to step back; yes, the food is good, but the menu is not particularly challenging either, and it is also less satisfying than a more traditional menu. Simply put, while we often have cravings for Japanese or Korean food, we would likely not have a craving for Namu’s take on these cuisines. Namu’s menu does incorporate Japanese and Korean elements, but the flavors are light and more muted, and our impression is that Namu’s cuisine is less substantial and less interesting than what one finds at many more traditional Japanese or Korean restaurants.

Perhaps we are being a bit harsh here. After all, Namu is a very new restaurant, having just opened two months ago. As of this writing, the restaurant has not even yet procured a liquor license. However, we will always report about our meals honestly, as we see them, and at this point, there is not a lot that sets Namu apart, in our mind. Namu is the sort of restaurant that Short Exact wants to like, and we feel that in time, it could mature into something greater. So you could perhaps see this review as just an initial impression. Overall, our first experience at Namu was a good one, and we certainly intend to visit again in the future to see how this restaurant refines and matures.



439 Balboa Street (between 5th Ave. and 6th Ave.)
San Francisco, CA 94118
Phone: 415.386.8332
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11:00 am – 3:00 pm, 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm; Fri, 11:00 am – 3:00 pm, 5:30 pm – 11:00 pm; Sat, 10:00 am – 3:00 pm (brunch), 5:30 pm – 11:00 pm; Sun, 10:00 am – 3:00 pm (brunch), 5:30 pm – 10:30 pm.

Cuisine: Asian Fusion/Pan-Asian
Neighborhood: Inner Richmond

How to get there: Direct access to Namu via Muni bus lines 31 and 44; lines 5, 21, 28, 33, and 38 are within reasonable walking distance.


  1. Thank you so much for writing about our business! We really appreciate the thoughtful review and urge you to try our dinner menu. The lunch menu is designed to be more approachable (brunch also begins feb 10th, also a less challenging menu). We will be adding a bar food menu and fine sake, beer and wine in about a month. I also recently hired some talented full time FOH staff (we opened with just friends and family working part time in the beginning because of the opening budget). Thanks again and we hope to hear from you soon!

  2. Dennis, thanks for dropping by and giving us an update on Namu’s upcoming plans! It sounds like some exciting developments are in the works. I’m especially interested to see how the sake menu turns out. Since Beau Timken seems to be the source of inspiration behind the sake offerings at other restaurants, is that also true of Namu?

    I definitely plan on coming again, almost certainly (as you suggested) at dinner, to have a different experience and get some additional perspective.

    Thanks again for dropping by and commenting.

  3. Seana Adachi is our new GM and sake sommelier. She has spent months in Japan by personal invitation, living and studying with some of the best sake makers.

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