Over the weekend, I had a chance to swing by and check out the soon-to-open Namu Gaji from the Lee brothers (Dennis, David, and Dan). I have been a fan of their Korean-influenced and flavor-packed dishes (and warm hospitality) from the first days of Namu back in 2006, their Inner Richmond restaurant which closed in December 2011 after their lease renewal negotiations didn't work out.
Their new Mission location, smack dab on the corner of 18th Street and Dolores, is definitely their grown-up, sophomore album. The sunny, 56-seat space is inviting, with a long communal table of bay laurel that runs down the center of the room with room for 12 (the reclaimed wood was sourced through Evan Shively). It was meant to evoke the feeling of a dining room in someone's home, but in this case, the entire neighborhood is invited. Overhead is a large and eye-catching redwood branch (gaji means "branch") by Jeff Burwell, stained a deep black by sumi ink and suspended from the ceiling, along with orange glass pendant lamps with an organic shape.
The restaurant's style was inspired by traditional Korean homes, featuring beautiful wood beams, custom metalwork, oak floors, and handmade Japanese tiles in the kitchen. Brian Ford of Metropolis Design is the interior designer and architect, and he collaborated closely with chef Dennis Lee. Ford has also worked on custom metalwork elements in Alice Waters' kitchen and Michael Pollan's kitchen and library, under the auspices of Alhorn-Hooven, a Berkeley-based design build collaborative. This is Ford's first restaurant project.
Looking out a row of windows flanking 18th Street is a long bay laurel counter with 13 tall stools, plus four two- and four-top tables in the back (there is also going to be a partition to turn the back dining area into a private area for 6-10 people). Mike Giant (Upper Playground) will be doing some artwork on the back wall and at the entrance. There's a seven-seat chef's counter, which is going to be reservation-only and will feature a prix-fixe menu (it will switch to this format a few weeks after the opening). The counter includes a sushi-like case that will display meats and vegetables on ice that are destined for skewers on the charcoal grill.
I got a few preview tastes of chef Dennis' menu (which always features housemade pickled and fermented items), presented on wood planks (by Jeff Burwell) and ceramic plates from Jered's Pottery in Berkeley. The menu will feature oysters with yuzu ponzu and chogochujang; uni shiso tempura; a rotating crudo selection (ideally local fish) sprinkled with dehydrated ume and served with ponzu, fermented chile leaves (over a year old!), and fresh wasabi that you grate on a shark-fin grater (the flavor is amazing, and a bit banana-like); creamy Parmesan and potato puffs that you dip in a housemade gochujang (fermented chile paste) aioli; incredible cubes of pickled, grass-fed beef tongue (with silky manzanita boletus mushroom brushed with Korean miso) that are cooked on the sumi charcoal grill and served on charred cedar; and grilled local squid stuffed with green garlic, and served with a double-down of roe: soyu ikura and mentaiko.
Many herbs and garnishes come from their one-acre farm at the Sunol AgPark, where they are growing ingredients that are hard to source, like Korean chile, Korean-style perilla (it's less floral), five kinds of daikon, microgreens, and more.
There will be more technique-driven vegetable dishes than at Namu, more share plates, and there will be a specials board, featuring big platters designed to serve groups of four. The Namu burger will stay on the menu, and there will be Korean ramen with handmade noodles (only 25 orders available). Lee's chef de cuisine is Michael Kim, previously with Matthew Accarrino at SPQR and Craft Los Angeles.
A fun component to the business is the take-out window on Dolores, which will be open during the day (10 am-3 pm) for take-out -- or you can sit in the dining room, but there isn't any table service. The menu will feature their street food items, like Korean tacos, okonomiyaki, and the KFC (Korean fried chicken) -- and note that none of these items will be on the restaurant menu.
There will be a happy hour in the restaurant from 4 pm-6 pm, serving pickles, panchan, bites like dried fish or ham jerky, all perfect with an ice cold beer. Speaking of ice, the brothers found a vintage shaved ice machine, and are making syrups like lychee and strawberry in house, depending on the season. Toppings will include red bean, condensed milk, and sake. You'll be able to get shaved ice from the window all day, and from 3pm to close, the window will only serve shaved ice.
The beer and wine list is under the direction of Collin Casey, who is focused on using small producers who believe in minimal intervention in their winemaking (the list features mostly European wines -- and there will also be a "reserve" list with about six select picks, like a 1992 Herbert Kerpen "Wehlener Sonneneur" riesling Auslese). There are both Asian beers (including unpasteurized Asahi) and "session" beers with moderate alcohol, plus Eric Bordelet Poire L'Authentique cider.
Some unique local partnerships include one with Dave McLean of Magnolia, who is creating a custom toasted-rice ale, and Kevin Kelley of NPA (Natural Process Alliance) -- known for distributing only to restaurants within 100 miles of the winery in metal canteens--is doing an orange (natural) wine blend. The Lee brothers are overseeing the sake program, which will include sake on tap, soju infusions (I have always loved the Thai chile version they do), and sake flights.
The Lee brothers will have their parents out for the opening -- their mother owns a restaurant in Massachusetts -- and chef Dennis will be bringing an aunt from Korea to San Francisco to work with him on his fermenting program (she will bring strains of bacteria from the family's village).
Namu Gaji is opening Saturday March 31st. They will continue their stand at the Ferry Building on Thursdays and Saturdays and Off the Grid: Fort Mason on Friday evenings. And chef Dennis is still on board as the executive chef for the upcoming Magnolia Brewery and restaurant project in Dogpatch, FYI. Dinner Tue-Sun, starting at 6 pm -- due to zoning, the restaurant will only be open until 11 pm. The window will be open daily (10 am-3 pm), with happy hour 4 pm-6 pm.
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