In a barely noticeable double storefront on a commercial, if slightly barren, block of inner Balboa, Namu is a find: an affordable wine-and-sake bar with a menu of small, enticing Japanese/Korean dishes, with both counter and table seating.
Three Korean brothers, all in their 20s but experienced beyond their years from growing up in restaurants, opened it a little more than a year ago.
My former restaurant partner, Anne Haskel, mailed me their menu recently with three words: “They get it.” True of so many kids from restaurant families, they do.
Restraint and balance characterize everything that comes out of this kitchen, and quality is never sacrificed for price. Tasty wines and exceptional sakes have been mindfully chosen to match Namu’s sophisticated cooking.
Every detail of the operation — from the Web site to background music in the dining room — has been considered. I couldn’t help but think of the early Slanted Door on Valencia Street, then a breakthrough Asian restaurant, in its attention to food sourcing, presentation, wine pairings and design. And just look what happened to them.
At Namu, every meal begins with a delightful plate of banchan, Korean raw and pickled vegetables of exceptional brightness. Then, you choose.
Start with an airy stack of tempura vegetables ($8), light and crisp, with a clean dashi-based dipping sauce (traditional Japanese broth made with seaweed and dried bonito). Dreamy handmade dumplings ($9) filled with a buttery shiitake mousse come in a sweet but deeply mushroomy broth full of sliced shiitakes.
Vegetables obviously inspire the kitchen. Grilled okra ($5), one of the best dishes in town, period, makes something out of a vegetable that most people in the Western world won’t even touch. Licked by the fire but still crisp, the okra are cut into slanty cylinders, lined up on a plate like ranks of little soldiers and dressed in haunting miso aioli.
Broccolini ($6), skinny, leafy, broccoli shoots, are wok-tossed with toasted garlic chips and a citrusy yuzu broth that calls out for rice ($2). So does the brilliant clay pot dish called daikon medallion ($9): thick, meltingly soft rounds of daikon in a translucent star anise-scented broth with savory bits of oxtail.
Flesh eaters will adore thick, meaty but not fatty, pork ribs ($10) in a sweet-and-sour glaze that packs some heat. Silken textured, miso-marinated black cod ($16), impeccably sourced from hook-and-line fishermen at Bodega Bay, is a fish for meat eaters — full of fat and sweet in flavor. If the kitchen has grilled tai bellies ($6), order them. The rich, fatty stomach flaps of these gulf fish take on a luscious char from the grill that underscores their vivacious natural flavor.
A bigflat-screen monitor silently playing old black-and-white Kurosawa movies or colorful anime gives focus to a spare, simple room with wooden floors, black stone tables and metal and wood chairs. A soundtrack of world beat music runs independently.
At night, the lights are kept very low and the big front windows look out on a Hopperesque view of a bus shelter and wind-swept pavement. Clued-in servers who really know the sake and wine lists and understand the food make Namu feel warm and welcoming, as does the cooking — so smart, so knowing, so confident. I advise going to Namu now, at its beginnings, when you can still get a table.