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Revisiting Namu

May 9, 2007

A few months back, we visited Namu, then an essentially brand new restaurant in the Inner Richmond offering Asian-inspired small plates, mostly showcasing the flavors of Korea and Japan. In our first report about this restaurant, we mentioned that while the food was good, the fact that it is a contemporary or “fusion” restaurant demands more challenging dishes and a higher level of creativity than what we experienced. To be sure, part of the reason we felt that way was that we went at lunch, rather than dinner. It only seems fair to investigate some of the dishes that are special to the dinner menu, so one evening we did exactly that.

A traditional Korean meal will feature a collection of banchan, smaller side dishes that are meant to accompany the main entree. There are many varieties, but the most famous of these is kimchi, a fermented dish of vegetables; very often this is cabbage with chili peppers, but there are many varieties. Despite the fact that Namu does not generally serve precisely traditional Japanese or Korean dishes, there is a nod to the tradition of banchan, since every dinner at Namu begins with a banchan plate:

tb_namu_2_banchan_plate.jpg

Only one serving is complimentary, but the banchan plate appears on the menu (for $2.50) if one taste is not enough. The two portions on the left were simple preparations of carrot and shiitake mushrooms, while the sample on the far right is of course the kimchi, made in-house, which was our favorite of the three. The cabbage was crisp and fresh, and the spiciness was balanced, clarified, and focused, as little sparks of pepper danced on our tongue. It was a nice way to begin the meal.

Next up was the scallop carpaccio,

tb_namu_2_scallops.jpg

consisting of Hokkaido scallops, cilantro, small cubes of tomato and a touch of delicate yuzu vinaigrette all atop thin rounds of cucumber. The thin, confetti-like strips of cilantro and the small of touch of acid from the tomato helped to accentuate the delicate sweetness of the scallop. The flavors here are subtle, not bold, but still satisfying. These scallop bites are actually reminiscent of nigiri sushi, and eating them in a similar way seems to be the best way to go. The traditional way to eat nigiri is not only to dip the fish (not the rice) side in the soy sauce, but also to place the piece fish-side down in one’s mouth, so that the neta (the fish slice) makes immediate and direct contact with the tongue. With this dish at Namu, the more uniform taste and texture of the cucumber slice may conceal the action on top of the slice, and so just like with nigiri, flipping each piece helps to emphasize the textural and flavor contrasts of the scallop, cilantro, and tomato.

The shiitake mushrooms from the banchan plate made a repeat appearance,

tb_namu_2_dumplings.jpg

this time hiding in fresh, neatly-wrapped dumplings — garnished with scallions and thin seaweed strips, and resting in a mushroom dashi broth. Good ingredients were used, and the dashi paired well with the mushrooms in the interior of the dumplings pouches, but to our taste, the dumplings could have used a contrasting flavor to enliven them.

The last dish was the eggplant,

tb_namu_2_eggplant.jpg

which was served with a tasty onion sesame vinaigrette. The texture of eggplant can sometimes be difficult to work with, but the eggplant in this case was cooked just the right amount and held up very nicely, benefiting from the contrasting texture of the katsuobushi (bonito) flakes. As you can see in the picture, the eggplant slices have nice grill marks on them, and the dish has good presentation; the flower carved from carrot emphasizes that the eggplant is sliced into pieces that look like the petals of a flower.

All in all, we had an enjoyable meal at Namu. Dishes are generally well-prepared and use good ingredients, and although service was perfectly friendly on our first visit, it seemed to be even more knowledgeable, expert and polished the second time around. In the first post, we mentioned that even though the food was good, we personally would not have cravings for the dishes at Namu (even though we regularly have cravings for the more traditional dishes that are the inspiration for Namu’s offerings). This is still the case, but it’s all a matter of taste, and we are glad we returned to dinner to try more of the menu.

Although one can obviously order a full meal’s worth of food here, in our mind, Namu’s ideal role is less that of a traditional restaurant, and more of a lounge, a place to unwind and socialize with friends over a few well-prepared “Asian tapas bar bites” and a glass of sake or wine — not exactly an izakaya, since the atmosphere is different, but somehow similar in spirit. Ironically, as of our last visit that led to this post (the actual restaurant visit was in April, not May), Namu had still not procured its liquor license. Fighting through the bureaucracy to get this license can be frustrating, and we certainly do not hold it against them that the details are still being worked out; rather, we are glad that they are being persistent. However, in our view, the character and spirit of Namu will really blossom once the drink aspect is introduced to accompany the dishes, which often consist of just a few bites, making them ideal to share with a small group. For our first review of Namu, restaurant co-owner Dennis Lee was nice enough to drop by and leave a couple notes in the comments section, indicating that the restaurant would soon offer wine, beer, and sake, and that the sake part of the menu was being compiled by Seana Adachi, who has lived, worked with, and learned from sake masters in Japan. This should be an interesting development when it gets off the ground.

In light of this second visit, we’d like to update our original rating of Namu:

RATING:

COST:

Please scroll down to the bottom of our original post for restaurant location and hours. Since our first review, Namu has introduced a brunch menu, and the hours have been updated to reflect this change.

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11 comments

  1. I can’t believe that a refill of your banchan plate costs money! It is just cheap pickled vegetables! That is like asking for money for refills of the rice pot or tea! Oh wait, restaurants ARE doing that nowadays.

    They are trying to drain every last penny from our pockets! Gosh, I remember the good ole’ days when stuff like that was free.


  2. Well, that’s why I called the banchan a “nod to tradition”, rather than well, more traditional tradition 😉

    That is like asking for money for refills of the rice pot or tea! Oh wait, restaurants ARE doing that nowadays.
    Aye, they are. It’s the sign of the times, and the end of an era. Or something.


  3. Charging for banchan is just wrong. Don’t care what the theme of the restaurant is. Otherwise, it looks pretty interesting.


  4. Yeah, I wasn’t thrilled about it either, although I didn’t make a big production about it in the post. The obvious work-around here is to just not order any additional banchan plates past the first complimentary one, and this turns out to not be such a problem, because there are other much more interesting dishes on the menu in any case.


  5. Love the pictures, another great review!


  6. Scallop carpaccio and dumplings look great. Nice site!


  7. Garrett and Jennifer: glad that you enjoyed, thanks for the visit!


  8. I came here after your review and I was not impressed with the food. the portions were too small and not authentic japanese or korean. Ive been to better places in the city and was not impressed by this food. I would give this place a total of 1 star for food quality. I would not recommend this place


  9. @ LeeDavis: Regarding your comment, “the portions were too small and not authentic japanese or korean.” This is definitely true, but the reason why I listed Namu in the “Asian fusion” category was to make it clear that this food isn’t authentic (and in the first post I wrote about them, I think that was made more explicit). In addition, the pictures suggest that the portions are not very large. So it seems that if you chose to visit Namu on the basis of reading this review, you should have at least suspected both of these points (which seem to be the basis of your criticism) in advance. Whether or not you agree with the rating (which accounts for more than just food, by the way), I believe that this post provides an accurate representation of the restaurant, or else I obviously would’ve written a different post 😉 While the cuisine at Namu isn’t my favorite (and fusion has never been my thing anyhow), I don’t think I can agree with your assessment of “1 star for food quality”, since 1 star is a rating I would (for the purposes of this blog) use for quite poor cooking. Even if portions are small and the food isn’t traditional (I agree with you on both points), I definitely wouldn’t use the word “poor” to describe the cooking.

    In any case, thanks for weighing in with your perspective. I’m sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy your meal. If you feel like more traditional Japanese, you may want to check out one of the strictly Japanese restaurant reviews instead.


  10. i had the daikon medallion and spicy pork short ribs there. wow! so delicious. i have been craving that daikon ever since and can’t wait to go back.


  11. @ ceecee: I haven’t gotten to try either of those dishes. Thanks for weighing in with your recs.



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