At significant risk of sounding like a cliche, I’m a great believer that a chef’s personality shines through their food. Not necessarily an inexplicable way – like some kind of psychic energy that gets transferred – but in every decision that they make. No matter how minute, every action reverbs through the restaurant experience.
Why the conceptualistic preamble? If you’ve ever been to chef Louis Han’s previous digs at Kimme, you’ll be familiar with its mod-Korean leaning: spicy, savoury XO sauce capellini and beef rossini that’s equal parts meat and foie gras. Bold, strong flavours, but still food that just wants you to have a good time. Food that’s, like Han, earnest.
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At Nae:Um, Han’s own venture, things move even more in time to his own beat. Decked in soothing shades of convivial beige – with none of the negative connotations of the colour – the restaurant has a homely aesthetic with plenty of wood and jars of homemade pickles lining the walls. It’s in the name too. Nae:Um is a literary expression that means “nostalgic scent” – and refers to Han’s memory-inspired “contemporary Seoul cuisine”.
For followers of Han’s cooking, you’ll find the flavours a little more restrained as boldness has been traded in for refinement. A starting snack of nurunji (brown rice puffed) topped beef tartare – something that was also served at, and more aggressively seasoned at Kimme – for instance, features meat aged in nuruk (a fermentation starter for Korean liquors) before being seasoned with familiar flavours like sesame oil, soy, mirin, and lime juice.
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You’ll also find a particular focus in building layers of umami – Mulhwae, a Korean raw seafood soup that usually features sliced raw seafood in a tangy broth, is rendered with kombu-aged white fish rolled with nuruk-aged daikon, pillowy shaved raw cuttlefish, and fresh greens all in a bracing yuzu-chilli sauce that whets the appetite.
There’s also steamed red grouper that’s first brined in a kombu stock, then steamed and served in a moreish, umami-packed beurre blanc made with dashi, Korean bean paste, and a mushroom-and-allium oil. This gets served with a complex, multi-textured roulade that could be a dish by itself – zucchini, charred napa cabbage, spanner crab, and crab soy sauce all come together into a one-bite wonder.
Meats, meanwhile, tend come from the binchotan relatively unadorned and served with various pickles to cut richness. Ten day-aged duck is further dry-aged for another week in the restaurant before being glazed with gochujang and grilled; while wagyu striploin spends two weeks in nuruk before being grilled with a house-made galbi sauce.
Said galbi sauce also goes into one of our favourite dishes: an unassuming snack of a duck meatball. Made with leg meat and duck fat, said meatball grilled to buttery, sublime medium rare. As a counterpoint to the melting richness, a tender, chewy piece of tteok hides within the meatball; while the whole thing sits on a crispy feuille de brick tartlet.
Dessert is also where Han shines. Instead of the usual chocolate and vanilla creations, Han crafts compelling flavours using typical korean ingredients. An unlikely bingsu-inspired combination of mascarpone snow, makgeolli sorbet, and watermelon, rock melon, and peaches fermented in grape juice and mint oil brings all sorts of pleasing mildness.
Then a rich, smooth jujube (or red date) ice cream comes with crispy puffed grains baked with savoury bean paste, and crisp charcoal tuile – all rounded, deeply flavourful things that play well together.
The meal, like most fine dining places, ends with petit fours – although Han populates this course with clever twists on traditional Korean sweets (imagine if a local meal ended on tiny kuehs). There’s Jeungpyeon, a fermented rice cake reminiscent of the Chinese bai tang gao (white sugar cake) – here covered in a thin, bruleed sugar shell. And also yakgwa, a sesame-oil scented dough deep-fried and soaked in a ginger-cinnamon syrup.
161 Telok Ayer Street. Tel: 8830-5016