Hidden next to the always-busy Bi-Rite was this little hard-to-spot eatery. Namu Gaji, the rebirth of Namu back in Inner Richmond, had opened shop by Dolores Park in mid-April. The long rectangle space with an open kitchen and neatly stacked wooden tables tout Korean and Japanese style cuisine. Their produce sourced from local farms, including their very own. And the decor somehow reflects it: clean, rustic and unassuming.
The menu was categorized by preparation: broth, salad, crispy (fried), grill and ‘comfort’ – the belly-warming carby delights. While we were surveying the menu, the restaurant brought on small pickled vegetable assortments for our enjoyment. Kimchi, sesame tossed Chinese broccoli, and bean sprouts; all house-made. The kimchi had a nice texture, though missing the customary sweetness comes from Asian pear (often used in the kimchi-pickling process).
We started with a really lovely raw dish. The sliced scallops arrived on a glass plate looking like a neatly painted flower. It was a petit symphony of flavors. Tangy and sweet from the tangerine slices, sparks of heat from the red pepper. Sliced battera konbu gave way to a reminder of the ocean, all while the sliced scallop – trembling at touch then soft and embracing at taste – set up the perfect envelope for all the flavors. It was clean and vibrant like the first sunny day at sea.
Following the raw we had a crispy: fried uni wrapped in shiso and other tempura vegetables. Uni and I had been faithful for years, oh you yellow spoonful of the ocean’s essence. Any time, any where. If there is uni on the menu, I will order it. Uni and fois gras, but I digress. Yet this dish, with all my passionate hopes, had failed in the use of uni. I could barely taste it. Overpowered by the shiso, the batter, and the sauce atop – and probably fried for a bit too long – the uni became faint and shriveled. $12 piece of sadness. The ‘onion rings’ were nice though.
Our comfort came in the form of Namu Gaji’s limited-supply ramen, serving only 24 orders a day. A kimchi ramen (a popular stable back in the motherland, according to my Korean companion) with some unconventional toppings: hot dog and panko-cursted then fried egg. Needless to say, we had high expectations. The egg was a great touch: the panko crust soaked up the broth nicely, yet still maintained its crunch. The center of the egg was of course gooey and delicious. Ah, my golden melty sunlight of joy. But everything else fell a bit short. The ramen itself needed a bit more work and springiness. Might be the kimchi and the hot dog, but the broth felt a little dead with saltiness. Hot dog was a fun idea, but I wasn’t sure this would be its place.
All in all, I thought Namu Gaji had great potential to be something truly wonderful. It was nice, but not quite enough. And at the price range offered, I felt that we should expect more. They were certainly capable of intricate flavor-building, manifested through the beautiful scallop dish. Maybe just more experimenting, and less hot dog.
Namu Gaji | 499 Dolores St. | San Francisco, CA | 415.431.6268