70 Boat Quay
WHILE Japanese cuisine has grown increasingly varied in Singapore over the past few years - with your average diner now able to tell the difference between robatayaki, kaiseki and izakaya - the same, unfortunately, can hardly be said of its Korean counterpart.
Tell friends about a new Korean restaurant, and the first thing that they picture is a cheap and cheery eatery with holes cut into its tables, and gaudy silver pipes hanging down from the ceiling. Not a BBQ restaurant? Oh, then it must serve bibimbap?
Namu, then, brings a gust of fresh air to the local dining scene. The two-month-old restaurant takes up an entire three-storey shophouse next to French restaurant Absinthe on Boat Quay, and aims to apply the same smart dining glamour to give Korean food a modern boost.
The restaurant is a partnership of three men - a Korean, a French and a Singaporean - who met as colleagues at JP Morgan. Of the three, only Seoul native Calvin Kang left his private equity job last year to run the restaurant full-time. He then roped in three childhood friends - all Koreans who have lived and worked abroad, and two of whom are Cordon Bleu-trained - to helm the kitchen at Namu.
And they've set off on a firm footing so far. A glass-enclosed kitchen and a long communal bar table share the restaurant's minimally decorated ground floor space. Upstairs in the main dining room, wood grain tables and a neutral colour palette takes over, along with a few light green living room sofas (Namu, after all, means tree in Korean).
For the indecisive, the jijimi platter ($14) offers a bit of all three types of Korean pancake on the menu. The kimchi ($10 ordered a la carte) and the zucchini jijimi ($8) taste exactly like you'd expect of Korean savoury pancakes - except they are a little thinner, less oily and already cut up into four neat inch-long squares for fuss-free consumption. A swipe of sweet sauce over the kimchi squares obliterates its spice level, already tuned a notch down.
Of the three, the lotus root jijimi ($12) was the most innovative. Speckled with black sesame seeds, the thin slivers of root resembled the more recognisable Korean starter of candied lotus roots, but instead of being sticky sweet, they were filled with a fine brunoise of shiitake mushrooms and very lightly deep-fried to give it a lovely, savoury crunch.
Likewise, Namu's caramelised chicken ($24) is a more uppity version of the yangnyeom chicken served in the myriad fried chicken "hofs" (or casual eateries) in Korea. The boneless, bite-sized nuggets of chicken thigh are coated with a comely sweet and spicy sauce. A drizzle of chopped nuts and a side of fried wonton skins add crunch. It's smart enough for a corporate lunch, yet easily paired as a bar snack with a post-work beer.
When you're a restaurant parked right in the heart of the CBD, there's another type of diner to be mindful of: the health-conscious desk-bound executive. And for this demographic, Namu offers bibimbap ($22), made with Korean multi-grain rice instead of white rice, ringed by a coiff of salad greens. Those who prefer their bibimbap in sizzling hot stone bowls will be disappointed but, on the upside, this means the raw greens don't wither and lose all their nutritional value. The sides (sans raw egg) are served on a separate dish for you to tip in as desired, or you can order the non-vegetarian version that comes with an additional plate of beef bulgogi ($32).
After a long day at work, the samgyetang ($42) is a sure-fire way to boost weary souls. Its presentation is perhaps the most homely of the lot - a whole glutinous-riced filled spring chicken sits, quite plainly, in the middle of a large bowl - but they don't stinge on the ingredients.
The starchy chicken broth has a strong ginseng fragrance but yet is still savoury enough so the ginseng's bitter flavour does not overwhelm.
The sparse dessert menu was not too inspiring, so we rounded off the meal with a scoop of palate-cleansing yuzu sorbet and a surprisingly refreshing sweet potato sorbet. Or head up to the third storey bar to sip on kimchi cocktails while taking in stunning city views from the open-air roof terrace.
The owners say they're holding back on bolder innovations until they've tested local waters, but for its promises of modern dining, Namu currently runs almost too cautiously on track with traditional flavours. One wishes the envelope could be pushed a little further on the stove rather than simply on the plate. We're keeping tabs on this one.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good