I first met Dennis Lee, one of the three brothers who co-founded Namu Gaji, a hot, “New Korean American” restaurant near Dolores Park in San Francisco, late last year. He had transported what looked like his entire staff and kitchen to make some amazingly flavorful and delicious food at a friends’ holiday party. I was so bowled over by the magic he and his team created, combining Korean cooking styles, spices and flavors with our terrific NorCal produce, that I knew I owed the restaurant another visit.
On a typically drizzly and foggy May evening, six of us showed up hungry and ready to feast. (To truly enjoy an Asian meal, dining with a crowd is vital. That way you can sample so much more.) Even the interior of the restaurant reflects the fusion of Korean and American cultures that are brought together at Namu Gaji. The communal table is crafted out of a beautiful piece of wood that’s uneven and natural. Chunky glass bottles and wild flowers adorn the tables. All very reflective of Northern California’s rustic beauty. Yet the food itself is presented with the utmost precise beauty – using elements of vegetables to adorn the plates. And no, I don’t mean carrots carved into flowers, but for instance, beet root tendrils add a natural finishing flourish to a surprising green garlic panna cotta. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We start our meal with an order of homemade pickles which include broccoli flowers and fennel ($5). One of the things I love about Korean food is its reliance on fermentation – a process which is so great for the digestive system. A small plate of pickles and kimchi is also presented at the start of the meal (pictured left, above). The kimchi is spicy, but you just need a little bit to add a zing to a dish.
Arriving during happy hour means you can order the so-called “tacos” – beef, chicken or tofu. And although we are in the Mission, these are no ordinary tacos. They’re wrapped in paper-thin seaweed, immensely delicate and with just a bit of heat. For $3 you simply have to order one of each and then try to share them (which is pretty much impossible, but worth trying).
Next up was a Korean take on beef tartare – wagyu beef served on a crunchy wonton type of based and decorated beautifully with flowers and translucent rings of raw shallots. At $18 it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it.
The dumplings ($14) – featuring shiitake, dashi, butter and nori – come in a complex broth overflowing with umami flavors. It’s hard to restrain yourself from picking up the bowl and slurping it back in one go.
An amazing – and filling – mushroom dish ($16) with portobello, shiitake, tofu, ricotta, and nori lands next on the table. Again, as much as feast for the eyes as the belly. The bright colors of spring: orange of carrots, a blush of pink from radishes, and the deep purple of a finely sliced beets, complement the dark earthiness of the mushrooms.
A gift from the kitchen, green garlic panna cotta is a surprise in more ways than one, and sits on the plate contrasted against the bright yellow of just-set egg yolk and golden beets. Topped with shaved asparagus and something else… here’s where the mystery decoration puzzles us – is it seaweed? Is it edible? In fact, it’s the roots of a beet.
Monkey does his usual restaurant test and orders the burger medium rare – an 80z grass-fed patty ($16). And much to his pleasure, it comes out perfectly cooked to order. And this place does virtually the best kids’ menu we have ever encountered offering scaled-down versions of the dishes on its main menu, vs. nasty processed mac n cheese or boring old penne with butter.
Just for the heck of it, although we are fit to bursting, we order the kid’s pancake which comes topped with bonito flakes, waving around as if by magic. A real kid-pleaser.
While the dessert menu looked tempting, with Bi-Rite Creamery right next door and three kids in our party, it was hard to resist the magnetic pull of freshly-made ice cream and so we didn’t. We rolled next door, pushing ourselves over the limit and into impending food comas with salted caramel scoops.
All-in-all, this is a feast to remember and if you’ve ever dismissed Asian, or more specifically, Korean food, as not being on the same “level” as American cuisine, re-think that immediately and head down to Namu Gaji.
Namu Gaji is at 499 Dolores St, San Francisco, CA 94110, Tel: (415) 431-6268
Our bill for six came to $188, including a few “adult” drinks.