161 Telok Ayer Street
Tel: 8830 5016
Open for dinner only Tues to Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm
WHO am I?
Now, that's an interesting question. It's not something we ask ourselves since we're grateful just to recognise ourselves in the mirror. But we do get that there are those who take personal identity, soul-searching, introspection and knowing the lyrics to Les Miserables' theme song as seriously as we do our apathy. And while we generally prefer the "Who am I?" camp not to overshare with the "What's it got to do with me?" club, there are times when we don't mind joining someone's journey of self-enlightenment if it involves a travelogue and some snacks.
That is pretty much what you will find at NAE:UM - a pleasant but still undeveloped journey into the psyche of a Western-trained Korean chef who travels to the motherland for inspiration and returns to his adopted Singapore to show off what he learned to an eager clientele who wouldn't know their mulhwae from their bugak anyway.
To say that we really enjoyed Louis Han's cooking at Kimme - where he was before Covid-19 sparked its demise and his own journey home - is to say that we could relate more to the bolder flavours and freestyle Korean-ness of his menu that we found refreshing and unassuming. NAE:UM, in turn, is a lot more thoughtful, stage-y and almost pretentious, but not in a bad way. More like he's driven by the pressure to perform, and conform to a preset storyline, rather than allow himself to be guided by whim, spontaneity or heck, even fun.
NAE:UM loosely means familiarity, so the menu is built around the chef's memories not just of Korea but his cooking stints around the world, so expect a hybrid menu where gochujang and beurre blanc find common ground.
The restaurant itself is easy on the eyes - wall-to-wall blond wood and muted colours and a cute cutlery drawer at each table - with a laid back elegance matched by the chef's own unassuming manner. The five course menu (without supplements) is a relatively accessible S$148, although it may not be for long.
Built around the chef's "favourite ingredients", Korean beef tartare is shrunk into a bite size marinated morsel that's got a clean meatiness with a refreshing mild acidity. It's a velvety mouthful with crunch from the puffed rice cracker it sits on.
Paired with this first snack are bugak - traditional Korean crisps of deep fried seaweed and glutinous rice paste, but made with mugwort leaves and lotus root here. You'll need to go to Seoul's Hansikgonggan for the best bugak, but here they're pretty by-the-way wafer thin crackers.
Rounding off the snacks is a salty but deftly made duck galbi meatball - lightly packed and tender minced meat shaped around a surprise nugget of chewy rice cake.
We like the thinking behind the bracingly sharp mulhwae or Korean sashimi with a brash attitude. Raw kampachi is rolled around shavings of squid and lowered into a sweet, sour and spicy dressing of yuzu juice, gochujang and mirin that jolts you out of the Zen-like calm of your surroundings.
Fully awake, you're in a better position to appreciate the evening's star dish - cold buckwheat noodles that are slippery and chewy in a savoury-tangy white kimchi dressing with sesame and truffle oil. With strips of sweet pear and briny uni, this creation alone probably justifies whatever soul searching was required to come up with it.
We're less convinced by the fish dish - a steamed fish fillet in a beurre blanc sauce spiked with Korean soy bean paste, and a zucchini roulade of crabmeat with a surprising wok hei smokiness. It's as if a French grouper stepped into a Korean bath house and met a Chinese chef, ending up in a cordial but puzzling cultural exchange. The zucchini roulade, however, has potential for a solo career.
The main course of bincho-broiled Challans duck is straight out of a western kitchen, with a token Gochujang glaze, teamed up with sweet onion puree to counter the saltiness, well-matched with pickled beetroot and simple duck jus.
We're brought back on track at dessert, with a lovely bingsu of mixed fruit granita with bits of watermelon, a grainy mascarpone snow and makgeoli ice cream that all melt together into luscious slush.
For a S$12 supplement, there's a curious confection called charcoal jujube where charcoal wafers encase a scoop of Korean red date ice cream and a handful of puffed multigrain. The ice cream has a mild but recognisable accent of jujube but otherwise, our vote goes to the bingsu. Depending on where your palate leans, the petit fours may be an acquired taste - a chewy, fermented rice cake and a canele shaped cookie made of fried flour kneaded with sesame oil with a sweet finish that grows on you.
At times forced, generally well-executed and occasionally inspired, NAE:UM is still a work in progress, with chef Han at the start of a long runway in his personal journey. But it's a promising debut, and we wish all other paths to self-discovery could taste as good.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.