499 Dolores St. San Francisco, CA 94110 | 415.431.6268 | website |
I met my friend Ben who pens the gorgeous blog Focus.Snap.Eat at Namu Gaji, the newest restaurant effort by the Lee Brothers which opened up last month. The original Namu restaurant in the Richmond closed at the end of 2011, not long after I enjoyed a tastebud thrilling brunch there for the first time and so was very glad to know the new site was across from Dolores Park, which is much easier for me to get to. As of last week I don’t recall any obvious signage, but that distinctive overhead tree limb suspended overhead is hard to miss, so that is a good thing to look out for. I really enjoy the cuisine, which is inspired by Korean and Japanese ingredients, philosophy and techniques and features local organic ingredients.
The interior evokes a serene tranquility with long communal tables and counters along the walls. We arrived in time for happy hour and opted to sit at the long table in the center. Our server gave me a spacious basket to put all my gear in so it wouldn’t get dirty on the floor, which was a very thoughtful touch, although it did crowd out poor Ben’s legroom under the table… As far as the ambience goes, I’d say they are definitely kid friendly, it was quite loud and boisterous during the course of our meal and there were a few little ones running around. Note the photos marked Lytro are living pictures that you can click on to adjust the focal point.
They dropped off a delightful trio of banchan: spicy kimchi, marinated bean sprouts and steamed spinach with sesame seeds. These provide flavorful fresh accents as accompaniments to the meal.
There were 10 minutes left of happy hour, so I had to order the Gamja Fries which are only available on said menu. Thick steak fries piled with tender bits of savory short rib, layered with liberal drizzles of rich kewpie mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce, spicy gochujang, and topped with kimchee relish and sliced green onions ($11). It was a dazzling korean poutine that would probably do a person right for dinner…
And even though Ben avoids fried foods, I went on to order the Tempura ($14) because of the uni wrapped in shiso leaf. The vegetables included zucchini blossoms, asparagus and onion rings, served with a ginger tsuyu and grated daikon that dissolves into the sauce adding depth and pungency. Everything was coated in a light delicate batter and topped with straws of crunchy fried green onion which was very good dipped into the piquant sauce.
Here is a closeup of the uni, which seemed deflated and a bit dry. Somehow in the fryer it lost that fabulous creamy quality as well as the sensation of filling your mouth with the essence of the sea.
I had read about the Beef Tongue ($20) on Grubstreet which had me convinced that I had to try it. The fabulous texture of the tongue is coaxed out of the muscular organ by brining, then slow-braising, then pickling using a soy-based concoction, and then finally it is cubed and grilled over low heat to develop a crispy char around the edges. The process takes days! It is accompanied with grilled spring onion and served on an aromatic cedar tile, along with a spoonful of spice mixture that set my tastebuds tingling and a wedge of fresh lime.
Ben did some food styling for me and artfully squeezed the lime.
We were a little dumbfounded at the diminutive portion size of the Asparagus, onsen Egg, duck ham, cured halibut roe & duck fat ($20). It was delicious, a classic combination of spring flavors, but that was it, an egg and asparagus for $20.
We gobbled up the Grilled Octopus which was served on a sizzling hot plate and drizzled with spicy gochujang ($14). The flesh was cooked with a delicate hand so that it remained squishy and tender but I missed having a bit of char on the tiny tentacles. I liked the combination of the octopus with seasonal vegetables, which was served over english peas, slices of spring onion, fried garlic, instead of the usual slices of white onion.
We had a couple of dishes that I ate at a previous visit, Dumplings in shiitake mushroom dashi broth ($14). This dish is sublime, like swallowing clouds of umami, combining fragrant shiitake with dashi and toasted seaweed.
We were both still a bit peckish and decided to finish off with the Bibim Momil Kook Soo, a salad made with julienned cucumber, crisp lettuce, pinenuts, tossed in a kimchee vinaigrette ($12). It was refreshing and light, the soba noodles had a lovely chewy texture interspersed with spicy kaiware and bits of pickled onion.
I had to try the hand cranked Shaved Ice ($8) a tumble with fresh strawberries and blueberries, blood orange syrup, with a surprisingly compatible caramel sauce and crunchy buttery brittle. It was refreshing and light. the caramel and brittle adding an indulgent depth to the snowy dessert. The texture of the ice was dense and crystalline, not the ethereal gossamer snowflakes I had envisioned but substantial and satisfying.
The floral arrangements on the tables were quite mesmerizing
And then there was this funny sumo figurine on the bar….
Fortuitously, the restaurant shares the block with Bi-Rite Market, Delfina Pizzeria, Tartine Bakery and is next door to Bi-Rite Creamery and across the street from Dolores Park and Mission Dolores, so if shaved ice doesn’t float your boat, you at least have options. I am waiting for them to get brunch on the menu again…