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A Cal-Korean Disruption

Soondubu and galbi lettuce wraps get a fine-dining spin at Maum in Palo Alto. 

SLIDESHOW

The final savory course of the tasting menu includes wagyu galbi and braised-oxtail rice.

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Seating consists of a lone communal table.

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Dinner starts with a series of palate teasers, including these fried squash leaves.

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Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the October issue of our sister magazine, San Francisco


“We grow stone
fruit at the mother ship,” the young man told me. He wasn’t a farmer, fresh off a flying saucer. He was a software engineer who earned his keep at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, where, as I was learning, peaches, like profits, ripen on the grounds.

We were sitting side by side as part of an impromptu party of 10, gathered Last Supper–style around the lone communal table that ran nearly the length of the austere space. Conversations swirled, the talk of beta testing and disruptions. What might have been a casting call for Silicon Valley was, in fact, the 7 p.m. seating at Maum, a refined, Korean-inspired Palo Alto redoubt with a meet-your-neighbor format—Lazy Bear for the South Bay set.

Like Lazy Bear, Maum began its life largely out of public view. Its founder, Brian Koo, a venture capitalist from South Korea, craved the flavors of his homeland, so last year he and his wife, Grace, leased a sparsely done-up address near the Stanford campus and used it to host a supper club for their friends. To do the cooking, Koo hired husband and wife Michael and Meichih Kim, he a Redd alumnus with Korean roots, she a chef with a background at Benu. What they made was soon deemed worthy of a wider audience—for three nights a week, anyway. The price is $165 per person, collected up front for an 11-to-13-course degustation (plus $100 for a beverage pairing, or $70 a person to split it). In addition to that payout, Maum asks for your buy-in. More crucial than your taste for kimchi is your appetite for sharing it with strangers.

No matter your disposition, Maum will do its best to get you in the mood. Evenings begin with a cocktail party mingle, replete with palate teasers and aperitifs (the latter are add-ons to your bill). No sooner had I stepped into the dining room, a beautiful beige-walled setting of monastic quiet and simplicity, than a sommelier approached with a list of sake, sparkling wines, and other by-the-glass options, followed by a server bearing raw oysters. These were buried under shavings of kimchi ice for a refreshing double jolt of fermented chili and arctic chill. The snacks kept coming. Dried and fried green squash leaves had a fragile crunch and a floral sweetness. Buckwheat-shell tartlets filled with corn-and-cheddar custard were addictive Martha Stewart–esque upgrades on corn cheese, the goopy, molten stuff they serve at Korean barbecue joints.

While those meat-centric establishments have proliferated in the Bay Area, Korean fine dining is a regional rarity: It popped its head up at short-lived Mosu and flourishes at three-Michelin-star Benu. Maum is more explicitly Korean than either of those, but it, too, is a mishmash of East and West. Michael Kim says his cooking is informed by the food he enjoyed as a kid growing up in Los Angeles and on trips to visit relatives in Korea. That lineage was clear in the soondae, an ink-black blood sausage that Kim supes up with chili-seasoned flakes of dried and salted shrimp. Less openly Korean was the caviar course, which drew from the continental playbook: a mound of sturgeon eggs shadowed by a cloud of whipped potatoes and crème fraîche. Though the biscuit that came with it was tinged with seaweed powder and the caviar itself was cured in Korean salt, those were things that I was told, not things that I could taste.

The caviar was the first course of the sit-down meal, delivered after we’d been encouraged by the servers to introduce ourselves. For a lot of folks I know, hell isn’t other people—it’s small talk with other people over dinner. Fortunately, Maum attracts a crowd inclined to nerd out over food and then provides lots of fodder. One stunner was a salad of peeled cherry tomatoes—sweet-tart buoys in a soy-sauce-and-rice-wine vinaigrette, topped with a tangle of white kelp that bristled with umami. Another was a fillet of sablefish basking in a delicately spicy broth stocked with zucchini, abalone, and the world’s tiniest potato dumplings: a better bouillabaisse.

Between mouthfuls, there was lots of chatter around the table, lubricated by generously poured wine pairings. It being Palo Alto, I’d been bracing for an evening of tech-world peacocking, but there wasn’t much of that to mock. Someone mentioned the company he’d sold. Someone else let slip that she’d gone to Harvard. But it was the most benign of humblebragging.

The meal itself, meanwhile, struck me as invitingly un–Palo Alto, bleeding-edge cuisine in a leafy suburb that, for all its pioneering in the new economy, has long lagged well behind the culinary curve. Maum is a disruption in the local dining scene. Out came a dish called duck dduk-galbi, a play on a grilled meat patty traditionally made with short ribs. In this case, ground duck spiked with ginger and serrano chilies was pressed into a cylinder and grilled around a duck bone, the ends of which protruded. It looked like headwear for Wilma Flintstone, but it was very real and very delicious.

The final savory item was wagyu galbi, marbled slabs of boneless short rib seared and served with fermented-soybean ssamjang sauce, kimchi, and stacks of lettuce and perilla leaves: the building blocks of a do-it-yourself wrap. To complement it all, there was a soup of slippery seaweed and a bowl of pearly rice mixed with braised oxtail—comfort foods that worked as digestifs.

In the rapid-fire procession of a dozen or so dishes, the only item that came close to being a clunker was the housemade tofu, which was bland despite being crowned with toasted garlic, shallots, and translucent tofu skin. Even the soy sauce and the toasted sesame oil served with it didn’t do the trick.

By 9 p.m., the meal was winding down, and so was the energy around the table. There was talk of kids and college applications, and mumblings of delight at the first of three desserts: a strawberry-and-sorrel crumble topped with a creamy orb of strawberry-centered buttermilk glace. That gave way to toasted-barley-and-buckwheat ice cream that called to mind Cap’n Crunch, in a good way, and then to a trio of mignardises.

And then it was done, an evening of paid-for but pleasant intimacy complete. Driving out of Palo Alto, I briefly lost my bearings, but I had in my possession a handy local product. Tapping on my iPhone, I was soon on the highway, heading toward home and the people I like dining with the best.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Maum

Prix fixe per person. . . . . . . $165

Oyster with kimchi ice; squash leaf; corn tartlet; soondae with salted shrimp; umhook with hot mustard; caviar, potato, and biscuit; tomato, cucumber, and kelp; soondubu with alliums and soy; sablefish haemultang; duck dduk-galbi; galbi, ssam, pickle, and jang; oxtail, rice, and broth; strawberry and buttermilk; barley-and-buckwheat ice cream; mignardises

Split beverage pairing. . . . . $140
Total for two. . . . . . . . . $470

Maum
322 University Ave. (near Bryant St.), Palo Alto, 650-656-8616
3 stars


Originally published in the October issue of
San Francisco

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