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Testing the Boundaries of Taste
Michael Bauer | Photo: Nader Khouri | February 7, 2019
Palo Alto’s Maum reimagines Korean cuisine by weaving cultures together to spectacular effect.
You wouldn’t know it from its unobtrusive storefront, but the upscale Maum in Palo Alto is arguably the most exciting restaurant to open in Silicon Valley in the past decade. Husband-and-wife team Michael and Meichih Kim have reimagined what most of us in the Bay Area think about Korean food, producing a fixed-price menu ($175) that starts with five bites enjoyed while standing around a table that runs down the center of the narrow room and seats 16. Those are followed by eight or more seated courses arriving in rapid succession. Wine pairings ($100) are on par with what you’ll find at three-Michelin-starred Benu in San Francisco, devised by another husband-and-wife team, Chris Gaither and Rebecca Fineman, seasoned sommeliers who tickle the palate with such specialties as a 2017 Umathum rosé served with a starter of peeled cherry tomatoes in a vinegary broth fortified with kelp and soy sauce. The duo left to open Ungrafted in San Francisco’s Dogpatch and now, Jose Maria Aguirre is in charge.
Maum (Korean for “from the heart”) offers only one seating three nights a week, making it one of the region’s most exclusive dining options. Other nights are reserved for private events. The concept was created by venture capitalist Brian Koo, who, in early 2018, opened it as a private meeting space featuring food he missed from home. Feedback was so positive that Maum opened to the public in July.
The dinner format is borrowed from Lazy Bear in San Francisco, where diners mingle before sitting at a communal table. It’s like a dinner party where everyone is bound to meet interesting people with varied backgrounds, but are brought together by an appreciation for great food. The interior’s sophisticated minimalist feel comes from dark herringbone wood floors, beige plaster walls, comfortable black leather armchairs and a high ceiling that prevents the room from feeling claustrophobic. Throughout the two-hour dinner, staff members break up conversations just long enough to describe the next course and wine pairing.
The Bay Area has started a load of trends, but pushing the limits of Korean food isn’t one of them. Michael, whose résumé includes stops at Redd in Yountville, Craft in Los Angeles, and SPQR and Namu Gaji in San Francisco, shares duties with his wife, who spent time at RN74 and Benu. The Kims always wanted to do a Korean concept and had packed up to try it in Los Angeles when they were approached about Maum. Their rigorous training allows them to weave two cultures to expert effect. Their blood sausage is mixed with salted shrimp to achieve the texture of a rich pate, and they mound raw oysters with kimchi-flavored ice in another small bite. Michael honors his grandmother in one magnificent interpretation of one of her recipes, preparing sablefish in gochujang, a sauce made with fermented chile paste, and pairing it with radish, mushrooms and small coins of potato dumplings with the chewiness of mochi.
While most flavor profiles reference the classics, the dishes are put together in imaginative ways— whether it’s soft custard with abalone and maitake mushrooms or tender dumplings in a broth festooned with ribbons of fried egg and threads of seaweed. In another memorable dish, the Kims feature cool buckwheat noodles in dried fish-based broth, accompanied by three perfect rectangles of pork belly marinated in fermented soybeans. The meat is braised before being grilled and glazed with sour plum, garlic and mirin, a combination that explodes on the palate and is reset with each bite of noodles. Their clever reinterpretation of classics is particularly noticeable in the main course featuring grilled beef, condiments and a bowl of lettuce that can be used to wrap everything up. The waiter then presents a large skillet with brisket kimchi rice that’s taken back to the kitchen and individually portioned. Desserts include a pouf of buttermilk mousse flecked with sorrel on top of strawberries, followed by a creamy swirl of sweet potato Mont Blanc that looks like threads of capellini. A parade of chocolates and other sweets wrap up the meal. The food is a revelation, but in describing what he does, Michael remains modest: “I’m just kind of modernizing and elevating traditional and nostalgic food.”
322 University Ave., Palo Alto 650.656.8168
Tasting menu, $175
Wine pairing, $100
Originally published in the January/February issue of Silicon Valley