Navigating the Pretty Good at Namu

namu lamb.jpg
Look away, sheep lovers: Namu's lamb chops with Thai basil pesto.
​We figured we should have ordered Namu's recently floated Korean fried chicken when we saw a platter of it drop on a nearby table. But just as we were second-guessing our selections, a heavyset British guy prepared to place his own table's order. Scowling and jowly -- a dead ringer for Chris Hitchens, actually -- he leaned over and loudly asked the couple engaged with the chicken's dismemberment what they thought of it. "Is it good? It's good, right?" he asked again and again. "It's pretty good," said the man eating chicken, shrugging, a flap of crusty skin hanging from the half-eaten drumstick in his hand. His dining companion nodded lightly in agreement. Hitch snorted and ordered something else.

"Pretty good" sums up Namu pretty well. In most dishes, individual elements sang sweet, clear notes, but a coherent, delicious melody did not always take shape. The panko-crunchy halibut "sticks" with cheddar cheese ($11) didn't need kimchi remoulade. Something acidic and clean -- vinegar, maybe -- would have been a better foil for fried fish and melted cheese. Shiitake dumplings ($9) sat in an intense, magnificent mushroom dashi broth but suffered from thick skins. Considering how much love they've gotten lately, we expected more from the Korean "tacos" ($7 for two). They came with a tomato salsa and the same kimchi remoulade that graced the platter of fish sticks. Less dainty than they've looked in pictures, the mounds on nori squares dripped more pink than an In-N-Out burger with extra sauce. There could have been Soyrizo underneath all that goop and we'd scarcely have known. Still, uni shiso tempura ($14) was simultaneously subtle yet assertive, and the lamb chop with Thai basil pesto, sambal, and arugula salad ($13) was delicious enough to banish -- at least momentarily -- the lingering guilt felt by even this life-long lover of sheep.

In all, we ate well, though not well enough to justify what we'd spent. In these still quite troubled economic times, people like us with bank accounts significantly smaller than our stomachs demand high returns on what, for us, are relative splurges. When you're sacrificing other pleasures -- new shoes, a stack of vinyl, or a nice pair of sunglasses -- for food, $100 is a lot to spend on a single non-special occasion dinner for two, especially when the same expense can provide eats for weeks in the form of a big trip to the grocery store, 20 burritos, 50 tacos, or, for the truly desperate, a few hundred packages of ultra-cheap ramen. The bar is higher now, and under the circumstances, "pretty good" isn't quite good enough.

Namu 439 Balboa (at Sixth Ave.), 386-8332

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