Nae:um is Chef Louis Han's soulful ode to Seoul in Telok Ayer

PHOTO: John Heng

Named after the Korean literary description of a fragrance that brings back memories, Nae:um is Chef Louis Han’s love letter to his birthplace on Telok Ayer Street.

Born and raised in the trendy Gangnam district of Seoul – thankfully, the oppa has a distinctively different style – he arrived in Singapore to join Meta Restaurant ‘s opening team before taking on the role of Head Chef at Kimme.

Five years after his arrival, the 31-year old newlywed embarks on a new journey with NAE:UM, where the progressive vibrancy of Seoul and flavours of folk traditions meets the rest of the world.

Chef Louis Han.
PHOTO: John Heng.

The 28-seater shophouse space is homely and minimalist, with a flowing layout defined by open-shelved partitions and blinds. Contemporary, birch-coloured furniture makes a pleasant contrast with the dove-grey and off-white palette and raw cement flooring.

We love the solid oakwood tables custom-fitted with individual cutlery drawers holding forks, spoons and knives, which in addition to chopsticks, so you can eat whichever way you’re most comfortable.

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Menus at Nae:um are episodic, featuring vignettes of Chef Louis’s personal journey, and designed for diners to choose how many courses they’d like to enjoy. A showcase of his favourite ingredients, episode one is priced from $148++ for five courses and alcohol pairings start from $78++ for half (three glasses).

Dinner begins with a trio of moreish snacks inspired by Korean culinary staples. Yukhoe gets an upgrade, with shavings of cured egg yolk and house pickled garlic shoots atop diced Australian wagyu aged with nuruk, a fermentation starter traditionally used in producing boozy beverages.

Bugak sees deep fried lotus root and shiso leaf battered in glutinous rice paste, seasoned with kimchi and chilli power a lil’ kick. Marinated with a secret gojuchang sauce, the binchotan-grilled Duck Galbi Tart is the undisputed star with its ratio of 80 per cent duck leg and 20 per cent duck fat encasing a rice cake centre.

PHOTO: John Heng.

The delicious build up wasn’t for naught with a first course like the Mulhwae . Nae:um’s take on the popular Korean cold, spicy raw fish soup features konbu-aged kanpachi rolled with daikon and sesame leaf. The very mildly spicy yuzu chilli sauce hits the spot with a balanced acidity that bridges the freshness of the seven-ingredient garden salad, while shavings of raw squid add texture.

If you enjoy cold noodles, it’s easy to be excited about the Uni Somyeon . The al dente buckwheat noodles were the perfect vessel for a flavourful, complicated dressing made from balancing chopped white kimchi, scallions, mirin, crab soy, and white truffle oil (amongst others).

With this dish, it’s possible to add a dollop of caviar for $10++, which we reckon is worth it in enhancing the seafood flavour alongside bafun uni.

PHOTO: John Heng.

The Korean name for the cooking technique of steaming, Jjim puts another seafood forward dish on our table. Kombu brined red snapper is steamed with leek and ginger infused oil at a low temperature, yielding wonderfully soft and flaky flesh.

For a contrasting accompaniment, the steam zucchini roulade is a firm parcel of crab soy cooked Napa cabbage and steamed spanner crab meat. Like the Mulhwae, it’s the sauce of many depths – a Korean bean paste infused beurre blanc that also sees shiitake, dashi, and cured fish roe – that pulls everything together.

Nuruk-aged Wagyu Striploin
PHOTO: John Heng.

Gojuchang makes another appearance in the glazed Irish Duck breast. The dry aged meat is seared in the pan to render its fat before spending time over the binchotan.

Alongside buttery onion puree and chicken stock sautéed baby spinach, what stood out here was the refreshing beetroot pickled with Korean pomegrante vinegar that helped cut through the robust flavours.

Diners can opt to beef up their dinner with the Nuruk-aged Wagyu Striploin ($48++ supplement). Aged 14 days with nuruk with the bone in to enhance flavours, the striploin is glazed several times with a sweet-savoury house galbi sauce several times while grilling over binchotan. Amongst complements that include kohlrabi salad and shiitake puree, the pickled shiitake is one that didn’t gel.

Summer Bingsu
PHOTO: John Heng.

For dessert, Summer Bingsu has two things that Chef Louis loves – summer fruits and makgeolli (fermented rice wine). Watermelon, rock melon and peach are house-fermented with red and white grape juice and mint before joining a fermented grape granita at the base.

Makgeolli sorbet sits atop with a scattering of mascarpone snow. What’s interesting is the alcohol pairing of Mimurosugi ‘Dio Abita’ Muroka Genshu Sake with the course. The light-bodied junmai ginjo enhances the fruity notes of the dessert, as well as a tinge of bittersweetness when it meets the mascarpone.

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Those who have a fondness for sweets and choose to add another dessert, the Charcoal Jujube , for $12++. We opted to skip ahead to the petit fours of madeleine-shaped jeungpyeon (a fermented rice cake made with makgeolli) torched to brûlée, and gold flake garnished Yakgwa , a deep fried cookie soaked in ginger malt syrup that’s usually enjoy during Korean celebrations.

Nae:um is located at 161 Telok Ayer Street, Singapore 068615, p. +65 8830 5016. Open Tue-Sat 6pm-10.30pm. Closed Mon & Sun.

This article was first published in City Nomads.