Namu

U, me, and Namu
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Of the city's many village centers, I have always had a special fondness for the Inner Richmond enclave along Balboa, from Arguello to Eighth Avenue or so. Here you find Russian bakeries nestled across the street from sushi bars, with a Korean barbecue at one corner, a Chinese joint at the next, and a chic Cal-Med spot a few steps beyond the traffic light. Add a butcher shop, a nursery school, and a cleaners, and you have a self-sustaining little world. It's like a less-trafficked Clement Street.

The backwater charm has persisted for years, despite the occasional incursions of upscaleness: Katia's Russian Tea room, with its immaculately starched tablecloths, and, of more recent vintage, the Richmond, which opened a few years ago in the old Jakarta space. The latest spit-and-polish entrant, Namu, isn't as conspicuous as either of those two restaurants; it opened about a year ago in a midblock storefront, and you could easily walk right by it if you weren't paying attention.

At least you could in the middle of the day. By night, Namu attracts the young the way a lantern attracts moths on a summer evening; they gather in clusters on either side of the door and along the curb, dressed in night shades of blue, gray, and black, talking on cell phones while waiting for a table to open up or the rest of their party to appear. If you were rushing along the sidewalk, you could probably pick your way past without too much fancy footwork, but you'd notice the crowd, certainly, and wonder what was up.

Part of what is up is certainly chef Dennis Lee's cooking. (Lee owns the place with his brothers, David and Daniel.) Although Namu's menu includes elements of both Japanese and fusion cooking, its most striking quality is its elegant recasting of Korean themes. It's not quite a Korean bistro, but it's more than a step in that direction and away from the traditional Korean barbecue, an honorable example of which stands at the corner.

Namu does offer that well-known Korean staple, kimchee (cabbage pickled with garlic and red chiles), and it's just about indistinguishable from the corner barbecue's: both offer excellent, sour fire. But at Namu the kimchee is served as part of a banchan plate (the first is complimentary, after that $4), in the company of, say, surprisingly rich sautéed chives and coils of pickled carrot, all presented on a museum-of-modern-art dish that looks like a flattened candelabra. There is a sense of stylish balance in both presentation and flavor that announces the kitchen's sophistication.

You could satisfy yourself entirely with Japanese items, if you were so inclined, and you might even be able to convince yourself that you were at a sushi bar. Although there's no sushi on the menu, the restaurant's look is agleam with dark minimalism, including the unframed urban-industrial photographs hung on the walls as if at a hip gallery. Anyway, tataki — lightly seared tabs of fish — is almost like sushi, and Namu's version ($10), with albacore tuna, is cleverly enhanced by a drizzle of Thai chili ponzu. Seaweed salad is also a sushi bar standard; here it's called ocean salad ($8) and is made from a jumble of red, green, and wakame seaweed and looks like leftover Christmas wrapping. Nice touches: halved cherry tomatoes beneath the seaweed, and ume vinaigrette (ume is a pickled Asian plum) to give the salad fruitiness that isn't quite sweet.

Pan-seared dumplings (a.k.a. pot stickers) are a commonplace throughout east Asia. Here ($9) they're filled with slivered shiitake mushrooms and served in a shallow bowl with yet more shiitake slivers and a dashi broth reduced to dark intensity.

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