Korean comfort: Stone pot with steak.
Wooden stool seating.
Potato puffs with gochujang aioli.
Chef Dennis Lee.
Salmon with yuzu cream.
As I hurtle toward life’s half-century mark, evidence abounds of advancing middle age. I can tug on a champagne cork and tear a labrum. I can slide a roast into the oven and slip a disk.
But nothing has made me wonder where the years went like Namu Gaji, a frequently superb Korean-inspired restaurant that’s so boisterous and willfully in-fashion that I found myself wishing I could rewind time—or that I’d shown up with unruly facial hair.
Namu gaji means “tree branch” in Korean, a fitting name for an offshoot of Namu (tree), the Inner Richmond outpost that the Lee brothers—Dennis, David, and Daniel—closed at the end of 2011 to focus on a move to the Mission district, a shift that brought them to the city’s epicenter of culinary chic. Bi-Rite Creamery is next door. Delfina isn’t far.
Their new place is built for the local demographic. Diners sit on backless wooden stools and at a counter that looks out through a wall of windows. The open kitchen faces a slender dining room that barely seats 50. A blond-wood communal table runs through it, overhung by amber-hued lights and an artful installation that resembles an oversize manzanita limb. With its clean, hard lines, the restaurant strikes an East-meets-West aesthetic balance: the simplicity of Zen, the informality of now.
Cross-cultural currents course through the cooking, too. While his brothers work the front of the house, Dennis, 32, who wears the toque, makes the kind of food he likes to eat. His menu is divided into categories such as “raw,” “crispy,” and “grill,” and like his background (Korean blood, American upbringing), it’s bred of a mixed heritage. It leaps from traditionals such as bibim kook soo—refreshing soba noodle salad in kimchee vinaigrette—and a rustic stone pot dish of skirt steak topped with a fried egg to brave new worlders, featured under the heading “comfort,” such as a burly burger on pain de mie with pickled-daikon slivers and kimchee relish. There are also delicate potato puffs, cloaked in parmesan and served with kimchee–and–chili paste aioli.
Lee’s food is impressively composed. But I couldn’t help thinking of a Korean friend who once took me aback by calling his people the Irish of Asia, a reference to the role that he said drinking played in their culture. Whenever we dined together at a Korean restaurant, no matter what I ordered, he would nod approvingly and say, “You see? That’s good hangover food!”
Namu Gaji serves plenty of such dishes, in which the fire of chilies mingles with the brine of pickled veggies and the belly-girding fat of beautifully grilled beef. Yet the kitchen relies on pedigreed produce, much of it plucked from its own farm in Sunol.
In the booze-friendly genre, my favorite is Lee’s gamja fries, house-cut french fries buried in an avalanche of chopped short ribs, gochujang (Korean chili paste), kimchee relish, teriyaki sauce, and a light Japanese mayonnaise known as Kewpie. Unrepentantly decadent, this mass could pass as Korean poutine.
This is served at lunch (takeout only) and happy hour, which runs from 5 p.m to 6 p.m., a good time to converse with the eager-to-please waitstaff, including sommelier–cum–sake steward Collin Casey, who looks like a Deadwood extra in his saloon-style mustache and seersucker suit, but who curates a very contemporary list that highlights soju cocktails, small-production sake, and beer that includes Miller High Life for modern ironists. The small wine list is focused on local, organic producers.
As the evening wears on, though, the easy chatter ends, and the restaurant takes a page from Jonathan Safran Foer: Things get extremely loud and incredibly close. On one visit, a friend and I, already wedged into a communal table, barely able to hear ourselves think, chuckled when the hostess asked if we could scoot down farther to make room for more. We thought she was joking. But soon enough, she returned and crammed another couple in. That amateur move took a lot of chutzpah, and it left everyone at the table harumphing instead of chirping happily about Lee’s cooking.
This was unfortunate, because in quieter moments, Lee’s sophistication becomes apparent with dishes such as raw, thick-cut king salmon with shiso, onions, and yuzu cream—a nice riff on lox and crème fraîche. He also serves shiitake mushroom dumplings, plump and dunked in dashi, as well as a braised cabbage casserole, salted with anchovies and steeped in a complex soy-and-ginger broth. Bonito flakes scattered across the surface flutter like pennants as steam rises through them—banners on a triumphant dish.
Fans of more adventurous eating might be drawn to something called fish parts: grilled salmon collar and tuna roe, still encased in its natural sac, poached in sake and then grilled. It has a tidal flavor and a mealy texture, which I guarantee you’ll love if you’re a starving seagull.
By the time I’d cleared my palate with a refreshing Meyer lemon and blood orange shaved ice, the lone dessert item, my bedtime was fast approaching. I stepped outside, feeling the wistfulness one senses when standing at the older end of a generational divide.
But I had no regrets. Ringing ears and a barking back are prices I’ll still pay for crisp, convention-busting cooking. Next time around, though, I’ll dose up on Geritol.
A recommended dinner for two, and what it will set you back.
Salmon with yuzu cream $18
Shiitake mushroom dumplings $14
Braised cabbage and anchovies $14
Stone pot dish with skirt steak $21
Shaved ice $5