If there is one thing you should know about the newly opened Nae:um Restaurant (“Nae:um”), it is that its modern-Seoul cuisine is first-rate. And if you care to listen to the second tip, it’s that a five-course dinner for two – with no add-ons – costs about two-thirds of what you’d pay for one pax in a high-end sushi-ya. In saying this, I feel I should add a caveat that restaurant prices in Singapore rarely stay stagnant, they mostly travel in one direction – northwards. Which makes it all the more compelling for you to see what Korean chef-owner Louis Han has in store at Nae:um while prices are still quite affordable.
One-time sous chef of Meta and former head chef of the now-defunct Kimme in Singapore, Han took a year off to reconnect with his root in Seoul last year, also spending half a year as sous chef in the two Michelin-starred Mosu, Seoul, and getting married virtually to his Singapore wife, all these while COVID had the world in its grip. When he could return to his adopted hometown of Singapore, plans were already afoot to open his own restaurant.
Enter Nae:um at Telok Ayer Street, the fresh-faced Korean chef’s 28-seat, tasting menu-only eatery that boasts a frosted glass door that opens into an airy space, extremely wide for a shop house, with blonde-wood tones, minimal decorations (save for jars of fermented vegetables and fruits), raw concrete floor and an open kitchen where Han calls the shots.
For his opening, Han has kept his Korean-accented menu decidedly streamlined so that he could focus singularly on perfecting each and everyone of the courses served. Shining the spotlight on his favourite ingredients, the Gangnam-born chef’s debut menu offers guests five solid courses for a grand total of $148++, with two supplementary courses available for an upcharge.
It’s uncommon for me to rave about snacks here, no matter how good, but Han’s Duck Galbi Tart is worth prime real estate. Chopped duck (leg and fat) meat is flavoured with gochujang and shaped into a ball coddling a pillowy, mochi-like rice cake at its heart. Grilled over the bincho and served in a cup of Feuille de Brick tartlet with leaves of julienned spring onion for a crown, this one-bite wonder has all the trappings of a tsukune (meatball), only that it is more textural and boasts decidedly intense flavours headlined by soy sauce and gochujang.
Han loves to eat hwae (raw fish) and he has stayed in Singapore long enough to understand Singaporeans’ love affair with sashimi. For his opening course, he serves his interpretation of Mulhwae, a cold and spicy Korean raw fish soup popularly eaten during the summer season. Kombu-aged kampachi (yellowtail) and shaved cuttlefish are tossed with a riot of garden salad (baby romaine, Japanese cucumber, celery, shiso cress, celery cress, fennel fronds and edible flowers) and radish aged with nuruk (a traditional Korean fermentation starter), then drizzled with a sweet and zesty yuzu chilli broth perfumed with gochujang. I say this with no shame, that the chilled broth is so compelling that it’s begging to be licked-up (I shamelessly asked for a teaspoon).
If I have to pick a favourite course, it would be the Jjim (steam) course. Locally-sourced red snapper is brined in kombu stock, coated in aromatics-infused oil, then steamed until the fish is just cooked. Served alongside a roulade of steamed zucchini and napa cabbage coddling shredded spanner crab within, the duo arrives smothered in a doenjang-enriched beurre blanc sauce speckled with cured ikura, oozing savouriness on a scale rarely seen in fish courses. Consider this a major fish coup.
To say that the next Irish duck course is also a favourite would be to devalue the deliciousness of the fish course. Let’s just say then that Han’s Gochujang course of gochujang-glazed Irish duck breast with pickled beetroot, onion puree, sauteed spinach, endive and duck jus is supremely well executed. The duck itself is dry-aged for a total of 17 days, marinated with gochujang and pan-seared before getting a final toast on the binchotan. In the palate, it’s sweet and smoky, its richness nicely balanced by the Korean pomegranate vinegar-pickled beetroot.
Han’s choice of dessert for the finale is aptly light and refreshing. A variation of a sweet he created during his time at Kimme, the chef’s take on Bingsu arrives as Summer Bingsu, a medley of fermented fruits with mint oil topped with mascarpone snow, fermented grape granita and makgeolli sorbet – an utterly refreshing mash-up of funky and fruity flavours.
Unless you are very hungry, in which case you may want to consider topping up $48++ for the Wagyu main course and $12 for the Charcoal Jujube, Nae:um’s basic menu is really quite adequate. This way, you keep to an affordable budget, with some cash to spare to splurge on a glass of sake or wine. In time, Han will add artisanal soju to his beverage menu and that, my friend, is something truly worthy of our patience.
161 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068 615; naeum.sg; +65-8830 5016