Brooklyn-born to Korean parents, Edward Lee started out serving Korean food at his first restaurant in New York. It closed following 9/11, which led to his landing in Louisville at the acclaimed 610 Magnolia, where he’s created mostly Southern-style cuisine for the past two decades. Now, with his latest restaurant, Nami, Lee says, “I want people to understand more about Korean food. I want it to have a bigger presence in the South.” And he’s leaving room for his own interpretation, saying, “You can’t take the Korean out of me…but after 21 years you can’t take the South out of me [either].”
Nami opened Derby weekend (that’s the first Saturday in May for the rest of the country), just after Lee prepared a state dinner for the US and South Korean presidents. Nami brings things full circle, Lee says. The glam Korean steakhouse, born of the pandemic, reflects his journey here, while also highlighting his culture.
In a sophisticated, urban space set in Louisville’s rapidly growing downtown, Nami’s interior is sleek and polished, trimmed out in a dark and moody color palette. But thanks to organic textures like the clusters of bamboo light fixtures, and luxe fabrics like velvet-wrapped booth seating, the vibe is still warm and inviting.
The concise menu at Nami is built around the five pillars of Korean cuisine, according to Lee, of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, and doenjang (miso), and illustrates the wealth of dishes that can be created with varying combinations. Starters, like spicy tuna tartare with sesame chips, ignite the appetite, immediately demonstrating how Lee choreographs a dance among vibrant, bold flavors and contrasting textures. Salads and hand rolls showcase fresh and boundary-pushing combinations like pear with chickpeas or honeydew and beets. Of course the star is the barbecue selection of marinated meats and a stunningly good vegetarian option, while noodles and rice bowls round out the menu. It’s all meant for sharing, and portions are generous, so bring a crowd.
The name means “beautiful” in Korean and is also his 10-year-old daughter Arden’s Korean name. “Korean food is very personal,” says Lee. “It’s my family thing.” During menu testing, he called his mom often. While she rolled her eyes at some of Lee’s “new wave” kimchi with ingredients like fennel and beets, she was impressed with the barbecued meats. “So there’s this connection between my mother, me, and my daughter.”
The duality between Lee’s Korean roots and his Southern home shows up across the menu, in items like the fried chicken “bear claw.” Louisville locals are tough customers when it comes to fried chicken, but here, they rave about how the crunchy skin shatters to give way to a most sumptuous, piping hot interior. Lee also weaves in lesser-known local ingredients, like the fermented soybeans his friend Matt Jamie uses for in his decadent Bourbon Barrel Foods soy sauce. After processing, the spent beans find new life at Nami as a base for scratch-made miso. “It’s still got living cultures. It’s beautiful,” Lee says. The miso ripples across the menu, feeding marinades, starring in a trio of dipping sauces, and building layers of flavor elsewhere.
Nami may be a beautiful restaurant shining a light on the world of Korean cuisine, but it’s not just another line in Lee’s star-studded resume, which includes a James Beard Award for his book Buttermilk Graffiti. “[Nami] gives my whole life’s work special meaning,” he says. “[My restaurants] cook a lot of different cuisines and I love it all. But it’s different when you’re cooking the cuisine of your heritage. You know, my mother is proud of me, finally.”
Here in Louisville, we’ve always been.
What to Order at Nami
Shrimp dumplings (mandu)
Steamed pockets of chewy shrimp filling bathed in chili crunch oil and topped with fresh scallions.
Pancakes studded with zucchini and kohlrabi and crowned with a scoop of impeccable steak tartare (Lee recommends the rock shrimp topping).
Ginger shaved ice
A glory of lychee, ginger snap cookie, savory crushed black sesame, and coconut condensed milk.
Lee loves the salmon roll with the surprising yet somehow perfect combo of strawberry.
Kalbi and gai-ji
Sliced beef short ribs in ginger garlic soy marinade and eggplant and king oyster mushrooms in a doenjang garlic marinade; both come with banchan, salad, and dipping sauces.
Best Friend Ever
An Asian pear margarita with cloudy rice wine, named for a K-Pop song.