I feel lucky to have traveled as much as I have over the past years. I have been even more blessed with incredibly rich culinary experiences. It is hard to compare eating at a Michelin star restaurant to an impromptu lunch in the Italian countryside… Learning from well seasoned professionals has it perks but the challenge of figuring out an old family recipe from a housewife who does not speak the same language you do is also quite the experience…
Each occurrence has been special in its own way and I have loved them all equally. Other than making great stories for dinner conversation, they have had a huge influence on shaping who I am professionally and how I view my craft. I have experienced a new first though… I found a restaurant that can single-handedly derail any plans I have for the day, make me brave sketchy weather to eat there and just simply fall in love with food, all over again.
I was originally drawn to Namu Gaji because not only are they Slow Food supporters, there is a great back-story and I have learned over the years, all great food comes from a great story. While traveling, I generally research the restaurants I intend to visit; Namu was no exception. I read every article, reviewed menus, checked reviews and even debated my budget, weighing what I wanted to try against what I could afford.
I always have to consider if I want company when I do my culinary research; it changes the dynamic. I find I meet more people on my own. I also feel free to be shamelessly food oriented. If I invite someone along, the hope is that they will not only enjoy the experience, but also that they share their dishes so I can try more things. I set out on one of my last nights in San Francisco with my new-found friend, Chico Clark, to dine at Namu. We were greeted and ushered to the bar that shares a counter with the open kitchen.
The amuse bouche handed to us by Daniel Lim (Namu Sous Chef) was the perfect enticement: a thin rice cracker with a sichimi alioli and furikake. As I worked my way through the menu with my dinner companion we sampled dish after dish that was expertly crafted and beautifully balanced. They all held that unique finesse that causes the diner to find the self control to not gobble down each concoction but rather savor every bite, letting it linger on your palate. Much like a good kiss, not the ones that make you hungry for more, the ones that make you close your eyes moments, even days after with a reminiscent sigh and a smile tugging at your lips.
The meal officially began with a selection of banchan including bean sprouts, konbu seaweed and a kimchee that tastes of a secret family recipe for reasons best left undisclosed. I chose a strong first course, Okonomiyaki, it is like a savory Japanese pancake. Although a goal of mine is to still try a hiroshima style okonomiyaki in Japan, I will always remember my first one from Namu. Their version is made with oysters, yamaimo (japanese mountain yam), cabbage, kewpie (japanese mayonnaise) and bonito flakes with the distinct Korean addition of kimchee.
This was followed by a bowl of silky shiitake dumplings wading in a brown butter dashi broth sprinkled with thin nori strips. This dish is the perfect example of what umami tastes like, for those of you who have been wondering. After watching Daniel plate a sea urchin dish multiple times while I feasted on the kitchen’s other creations, I couldn’t help but order it. The uni is placed on a delicate and crisp sheet of hand rolled buckwheat lavash that is ever so slightly grilled over charcoal and then garnished with persimmon, pickled mustard seeds, egg white foam and pistou (a basil, garlic and olive oil paste).
One of the most interesting dishes by far was the beef tongue. Tongue is a controversial cut, either people like it or don’t. As a kid I was grossed out by the idea, over the years I have not only grown to like it, but am always interested in new ways to cook it. It was presented brined and seared over the small charcoal grill with fingerling potatoes, jimmy nardello pepper and chili oil, garnished with thin radish slices. The texture of the meat was unlike anything I have ever had and something I want to attempt to recreate. It was stunning.
Desserts are usually a sore spot for me at restaurants, many times treated as a careless afterthought by the chef. Attention to detail and careful thought were noticeable in each dish that we were presented that evening, so I decided to risk it and order dessert. My companion and I shared a hand cranked meyer lemon shave ice adorned with candied buddha’s hand and crumbled graham crackers; this along with a black sesame pudding with a chocolate ganache and whipped cream.
Asian influenced desserts are usually less sweet than their European or Western counterparts; the black sesame pudding was no exception. Its sweetness however was perfectly balanced, allowing the toasted nuttiness of the sesame to shine through. The shave ice was bright and tasted homemade in all the right ways.
The perfect ending to the meal was not the desserts, but the shots we did with David Lee, one of the brothers that owns and runs Namu Gaji. To be honest, it was the first time I have ever felt starstruck. I have met famous athletes and famous chefs, never been fazed… However, when David Lee walked in, I poked Chico and whispered, “That’s him!” I’ll admit, after meeting him, reading about him and hearing about him and his other endeavors from the staff, I might have developed a bit of a crush.
This is only the beginning of what I want to share with you all about Namu Gaji, the love affair will continue…