Nice Ambiance, Pretty Plating, Pleasant and Underwhelming - n/naka [Thoughts + Pics]


#1

Perhaps the one restaurant in L.A. that I’ve been hoping to try but been unable to is n/naka. It has literally been years of on-and-off trying before I was able to finally get a reservation and try one of the hardest reservations to get in town (note: n/naka only opens up reservations 3 months in advance, and it’s just been booked solid whenever I’ve checked). When I was finally able to get a reservation, I freaked out, making my co-worker wonder what just happened. :sweat_smile:

Opened by Chef-Owner Niki Nakayama (who had previously worked at Takao and Azami Sushi Cafe), n/naka occupies a quiet corner of Overland Avenue. There is no signage, and I didn’t realize I had driven past n/naka countless times in the past.

Walking in, we’re immediately greeted and escorted to our table. The interior is sleek, modern, but warm as well.

Their Sake menu has an interesting selection, with the Junmai Daiginjo section being the most extensive (13 choices), with all of them being well into the triple digits, except for Born Gold. @beefnoguy can probably recommend some good choices from this section (we wondered about the Yukiyuzawa Junmai Daiginjo (from Akita, Japan)), but ultimately we settled on:

Akagisan Junmai Ginjo Sake (Gunma, Japan):

Our server strongly recommended this one to pair with this evening’s dishes. This was a pleasant sipping Sake, lightly floral, albeit with a longer finish than I usually like.

n/naka is a Tasting Menu Only format, in a sort of hybrid Kaiseki format.

Sakizuke - Tiger Shrimp in Phyllo Dough:

The starter course was a single Tiger Shrimp with Phyllo Dough and Pumpkin Puree. The Tiger Shrimp tasted very clean, and the flavors worked.

Zensai - Seasonal Selection:

Their next course featured 5 dishes of the season. The plating was beautiful, classy and we couldn’t wait to try it! :slight_smile:

Duck, Mustard Sauce, Green Onions:

The Duck was cooked medium-rare and quite tender. The combination of Duck and Mustard with a light spiciness from the Green Onions was nice. :slight_smile:

Pan Fried Halibut, Seaweed Sauce:

The small bite of Halibut was OK: Pan-fried, slightly overcooked (dryish), we liked the Ginko Nut at least.

Natto, Squid, Squid Ink:

Some of you may know this, but I don’t like Natto. At all. :sweat: :expressionless: :cry: It is pure evil and generally not pleasant (tasting like rotting, super sticky, stinky & slimy Beans). :stuck_out_tongue:

Given that caveat, this was delicious! :slight_smile: Chef Nakayama brought out a silky quality to this dish, with the Raw Squid and Squid Ink helping to mask any unpleasantness in the Natto itself. It was baffling how not bad this dish was. :wink: Probably one of my favorite dishes this evening.

Vegetable Terrine, Sesame Sauce:

This looked beautiful, and the idea in theory was cute and wonderful - making a “Terrine” out of pressed, cooked Vegetables.

The actual taste? It tasted like Boiled Vegetables (Cabbage, Green Beans). :frowning:

Pickled Apple:

This looked like a normal Apple but when they introduced it to us as a Pickled Apple, that sounded really neat. And?

It tasted like a normal Apple. :expressionless:

Chopped Sawara (Spanish Mackerel), Seaweed, Smoked Oak Sauce:

The Chopped Spanish Mackerel tasted pretty fresh, but a bit bland by itself. Dipping it into the Smoked Oak Sauce was startling: There was an intense smokiness in the Sauce, so you only needed a small dab to season / flavor the Sawara. This was interesting for the Smoked Oak Sauce, but it overpowered the Sawara (even when using a small dab).

Wan no Mono - Shrimp Mushroom Dumpling, Broccoli, Lotus Root:

The Kelp Dashi was clean and light, the Shrimp Dumpling was overcooked. :frowning: The Dumpling skin was too soft and soggy. :cry: The actual Shrimp Dumpling itself was fine - clean, lightly briny Shrimp filling.

Sashimi Course - Kinki (Santa Barbara, USA), Spiny Lobster (Santa Barbara, USA), Kumamoto Oyster (Washington, USA), Kanpachi (Kagoshima, Japan), Kinmedai (Toyama, Japan):

Next was the Sashimi course. I couldn’t wait to see how n/naka’s Sashimi would be like. :slight_smile:

The Kinki from Santa Barbara was chewy. :frowning:

The Spiny Lobster was much better, nicely tender, but meaty and very fresh.

The Kumamoto Oyster was fine.

The Kanpachi (Great Amberjack) was OK. Having just gone to Aburiya Raku, there was no comparison. Aburiya Raku’s Kanpachi was far superior in taste, brightness, presentation and cut (this was shocking).

The Kinmedai (Splendid Alfonsino) tasted fresh and light.

Yakimono - Grilled Foie Gras, Persimmon:

The Foie Gras was nicely cooked just through, still moist and tender. However it lacked pop. There was no “OMG! This is so buttery!” moment. You could taste that it was Foie Gras, but it was just underwhelming. :sob:

I remember every single Foie Gras dish at Animal (and the first time we ever ate each of those dishes) because of how stunning and how soulful the Foie Gras was.

Same for the Foie Gras at Aburiya Raku, which needs no Persimmon adornment to just make you weep tears of joy on how awesome it is!

Here? It was… fine and somewhat muted.

Steamed Black Cod, Sea Urchin, Matsutake Mushroom, Sea Lettuce, Ankake Dashi:

This looked like a simple, basic Soup, but taking a bite of the Steamed Black Cod (San Diego)…

Outstanding! :heart:

The Black Cod was cooked just through, super tender and buttery. The Ankake Dashi was so clean, delicate but full of flavor! It was like Chef Nakayama’s version of a Japanese Consomme, that was how pure it tasted. :blush:

Best dish of the evening by far. :slight_smile:

This was the type of cooking we were hoping to see, and we were glad we had one dish that finally stood out.

Spaghetti with Mentaiko Sauce, Abalone, Italian Black Truffle:

When I saw this Spaghetti dish show up, I let out a small squeal. :sweat_smile: n/naka’s Spaghetti / Pasta dish is the one thing so many of my dear FTC’ers raved about! @Porthos @PorkyBelly and so many others had talked about this, and I was so glad to see it was still on the menu (phew!). :slight_smile:

Taking a bite, I could taste a real deep, (good) briny Mentaiko Sauce permeating the Spaghetti… but it was lukewarm! :sob:

We noticed that it was a full house, and every table around us was being served the same courses at roughly the same time. So this must’ve been a case of them making a large batch of the Pasta, trying to plate 10+(?) individual servings of this Pasta and bring it out to all the tables in time.

I was fine making excuses for the kitchen and trying to look past this, but at the end of the day we had lukewarm (almost cold) Spaghetti. :frowning:

If this was served hot, I think it would’ve been stellar. As it was? It was tasty, but slightly offputting. :frowning: I was so saddened by this, as it was the one dish I was so looking forward to at n/naka.

Grade A5 Wagyu Beef (Miyazaki, Japan), Murasaki Imo, Fig, Pickled Onions:

But my heart lit up when our server announced Grade A5 Wagyu Beef as our next course. :slight_smile: The A5 was tender (as to be expected), but the flavors were just OK. The condiments didn’t complement the A5 Wagyu, rather, they felt like separate components more for the visuals than actual taste.

The Pickled Onion was there probably to help cut through the fattiness, but taking a bite together? No bueno. :frowning:

The Fig and A5 Wagyu? Not really interesting.

The Murasaki Imo (Mashed Japanese Purple Potato) and A5 Wagyu? It was OK.

The Mashed Polenta was delicious by itself though. :slight_smile: Full of Garlic and super fragrant.

Lobster Salad, Grapefruit Gelee, Elder Flower + Yuzu Sake (Kyoto, Japan):

Yuzu Omoi (Sake with Yuzu Juice):

The presentation on this was beautiful. The Lobster Salad was surprisingly bitter (the Grapefruit Gelee dominating), but tasting light and clean as well.

Next up was the start of the Sushi courses.

Mebachi Maguro - Big Eye Tuna (Hawaii, USA) + Tai - Sea Bream Snapper (Japan):

The Big Eye Tuna from Hawaii tasted relatively fresh, tender, but the Shari (Rice) was terrible! :frowning: :cry: It was mushy.

The Tai (our server didn’t know where the Tai was from, and when we asked her to find out, she forgot to get an answer) tasted fine, but was again undermined by the awful Rice.

Saba - Mackerel (Kyushu, Japan) + Akamutsu - Rosy Seabass (Kyushu, Japan):

The Akamutsu was excellent, a nice meatiness, with a slight buttery-fat quality, but ruined by the Rice.

The Mackerel was fishy and not that good. :frowning: (A far cry from the stunning Saba from Mori-san at Shiki).

Hotategai - Scallop (Hokkaido, Japan) + Uni & Ikura - Sea Urchin & Salmon Roe (Santa Barbara & Alaska):

The Hokkaido Scallop was lightly sweet and delicious. But ruined by the Rice.

However, what should be a fantastic pairing of Uni (Sea Urchin) and Ikura (Salmon Roe) was the worst dish of the evening:

The Uni was super fishy / old-tasting (you can see it looks like it was decomposing in the pic), and the Nori (Seaweed) was soggy! :sob: This was just bad.

Thankfully the Sushi course ended at this point.

Miso Soup, Aburaage:

The Miso Soup was very light and delicate, and we enjoyed the Fried Tofu Skin.

Blue Crab Handroll:

This was fine. The Blue Crab filling didn’t really pop, nor did it have that amazing sweetness when it’s super fresh. But it was OK. The Nori (Seaweed) wasn’t crisp or crunchy. :frowning: (A far cry from Mori Sushi’s legendary Hand Rolls.)

Apple Sorbet:

This tasted like Chilled Apple Juice, which was fine.

Dessert Course - Caramel Truffle, Black Sesame Ice Cream, Almond Cranberry, Meringue:

The Dessert Course was pretty disappointing as well, sadly. The Black Sesame Ice Cream was the most disappointing of the group: It tasted like Ice Cream with barely a hint of Black Sesame (not really). Thinking back on Shunji’s Black Sesame Ice Cream, and it’s leagues ahead of what was offered here. :frowning:

Matcha:

Trio of Cookies: Chocolate, Huckleberry, Mexican Wedding:

The Cookies were OK, except the Mexican Wedding Cookie which was fantastic! :slight_smile: Salty, sweet and airy.

Service throughout the evening was generally very good, with plates and utensils swapped out after every course, although there were a few minor hiccups. Our server lacking knowledge of the sourcing on some of the fish (and having to ask, and forgetting to ask about one) is understandable (they are busy), but in general, it falls behind the excellent, professional service of a world-class place like Saison.

In the end, n/naka featured a beautiful setting, pretty plating, and a generally pleasant evening. The food was mostly safe, and OK, but only 3 dishes this evening truly moved us: The Squid & Squid Ink bite, the amazing Steamed Black Cod, and then the last Cookie of the evening. At nearly $300 per person, one would hope that there were more great dishes and moments of culinary excellence, where you can get excited.

But that wasn’t the case: Most of the dishes ranged from safe / OK, to good, with some disastrous courses like the awful Sushi Rice (I don’t recall eating Shari that bad in a long time), along with the bad Uni + Ikura combo and soggy Nori; and the lukewarm Spaghetti. :frowning:

At this price point, and with the absurdly hard reservations (I’ve been trying for years to get in), n/naka feels like a disappointment. We’ve gotten far more happiness and just great culinary experiences and tastes from Mori Sushi, Shunji, Gjusta and other far more accessible places (at a cheaper cost as well), that we’re left wondering what the fuss is all about.

Perhaps it was an off night (we hope so). We want to go back and give it another try. But for now, there are far better restaurants that deliver food that moves you and makes you weep for joy in how great it is. That’s just lacking in our meal at n/naka outside of the Black Cod (and to some extent the Mexican Wedding Cookie).

n/naka
3455 S. Overland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Tel: (310) 836-6252

https://n-naka.com/


The Truffle Guru (and The Other Sushi Master in L.A.) - Shunji [Review]
#2

Thanks for your honest review. At n/naka I’ve experienced a few great dishes and many ok ones. The ones that worked hit it out of the park (the abalone spaghettini is a great bite, when it’s served properly), but there were a lows too. I also was not a fan of the sushi at all; I think the meal would be stronger without it, because the problems with nigiri persist with each course, and that leaves an impression. I understand the chef changes the menu quite often, but perhaps therein lies a challenge for consistency. A few of my friends who visited have all thought the same. Paying attention to all the worldwide press, Gelb documentary and all, may inflate your expectations to think it’s world-class. I would like to return more often to keep an open mind, because there were some great bites and I like that she’s dedicated to a specific viewpoint, but my experience, and those of my friends as well, have been mixed.


#3

Thanks, @Chowseeker1999, for letting us vicariously live through your camera lens and palate. At $300 a pop, I would agree with you and would expect to be moved by the food, too. I’m sorry you were not.
This has been on my list for quite some time, but I’m super weary of dropping that kind of cash seeing how unimpressed you were. Especially when there are other places in L.A. that can command just as much for fine dining.
Out of curiosity, did you ever consider not eating the subpar sushi rice so you could enjoy the actual fish? While I understand that could be a sin, it’s such a shame to let bad rice ruin a nice piece of fish.


#4

how could no one in the kitchen check the sushi rice? even the person plating the sushi should have been able to discern the poor rice quality.

as for their rep, i once dared to venture an opinion that n/naka wasn’t all that for certain reasons and got hammered pretty good for it.

ha ha.


#5

Hi @BradFord,

Thanks for your thoughts and good to know you’ve had some mixed experiences also, which is unfortunate.

After our visit, I reached out to some friends who had been. All of them (6 different people) have said that they had some great dishes, but some average / so-so dishes as well. One of the couples flies to Japan to eat 5 - 6 times a year (and Paris, etc.), and they’re really honest. They said the same thing you did.

I definitely want to go back, and had a potential opening, but a schedule conflict prevented us from going back in March (darn).

I loved the Steamed Black Cod (it was truly fantastic), and just wished even 1/3 or 1/2 the courses were more on that level.


#7

I went twice in 2016 and i am not planning on going again. For the price point, getting omakase at Shunji or balling out at Cut… or Spago.

I literally spent $800 with tip at n/naka on a dinner for me an my ex gf there. And left with the same feelings you did. For that price, every dish should have the wow factor and the service needs to be outstanding… which it’s not.

I think everyone is brainwashed about this spot IMO.


#8

I don’t know about that. I think there are some great bites at n/naka but for some it may not quite fulfill its promise given its accolades. Its international notoriety has skyrocketed in recent years, and that combined with very difficult reservations, means it has huge shoes to fill. With that said, there are several places in California which are equally or more expensive that aren’t quite as good, or succumb to the same challenges with consistency to varying degrees. $800 w/ tip for a party of 2 is kind of par for the course for “fine dining” in California, unfortunately, some dates/outings for 2 introduce that comma. I can understand the disappointment, but given a few great bites there, I am still interested to return eventually to see if my experiences were anomalies. If only it were easier to get into…


#9

Love that quote.


#10

As a fan, I don’t dispute this at all. That said, I clearly find the overall package more compelling then the rest of you.


#11

Hi @attran99,

Thanks. :slight_smile: The sushi rice was that bad, but I never thought about just scraping off the rice to eat the fish; interesting thought though, as you said it would’ve been better.


#12

Well, keep in mind that this is going to turn mostly into a negative review zone since @Chowseeker1999 is taking n/naka to task and that is rare. Many people who have stayed quiet about so so experiences will speak up now. Hell, we’ve already heard from someone who has never even dined at n/naka! I’m not disputing anyone’s experience or views one bit.

I will just say that I’ve loved my meals at n/naka.
I’m just here to say that you are not alone!


#13

Really excellent reporting @Chowseeker1999, thanks for this! And super valuable feedback even for me mulling over whether to take the plunge someday. With 3 months advanced planning and the cost, I’ll likely bow out of this one and take it off the consideration list.

These are just thoughts from an outside observer.

The Gelb documentary episode really did her no favors overall (other than to draw in a steady stream of business). I get it that she’s struggling in a male dominated field, but she (and Gelb) in the episode are doing a great disservice to herself in the way her story is being told (and portrayed). In the end it’s both commedable, but yet seems to focus less on her abilities/capabilities/potential. It’s great that she worked at Takao and has that experience, but that seems to work against her a little bit (especially with how weak the sushi is there from various reports). However she chose to label her food as California style kaiseki which is perceived both in good and bad ways depending on how sharp your Japanese cuisine lens is and how much experience you’ve had with Japanese fine dining. My impression after watching the episode was, great cinematography and potentially some dishes can be seemingly very good, but there’s something that’s also a bit lacking at the end and perhaps something missing in the flow.

Up here in Northern California we have Wakuriya which is also somewhat of a hybrid California kaiseki and while I’ve only been once, there’s something that just didn’t quite work overall (even when the chef was cooking in Menlo Park at Kaygetsu). I know we are not supposed to make comparisons especially when we’ve had kaiseki proper at other places (whether Japan or not), but inevitably a place will always be measured not just by the quality, but the flow and the overall experience (and satisfaction level, whether you felt you received value for what you paid. The perceived value if $300 a person from this trip report, to me seems really poor and using a piece of A5 wagyu doesn’t further justify it any bit more either.

Yeah that is correct…Raku’s sashimi is so high level that it’s the golden standard even for me as a visitor.
It’s not just the quality of the fish, but Chef Matt Weaver’s ridiculously skilled knifework and creativity (not to mention presentation) to enhance the enjoyment, and the overall experience even on the sashimi alone, matches in satisfaction level with some of my recent meals in Tokyo.

The way it seems, n/Naka will have no shortage of customers. Even if they were to be located in San Francisco, quite possible it will be the same situation. People will continue to support and like them for varying reasons, regardless of whether the food is good or not as there is a lot of other appeal to the place (a lot of it no doubt from Gelb’s documentary). Most of us of course will feel the nigiri course and even the blue crab salad hand rolls are disruptive to the flow, but in the end they are easy crowd pleasers, in some ways part of LA sushi (no thanks to Zo, Sasabune, Nozawa esp the handrolls) and require a bit less technical skill to execute (and even less so considering the quality they put out during this visit). Plus I’m sure it’s one of those must go places for Instagrammers to be seen. This reminds me of the defunct Kappa in San Francisco Japantown. It was a kappo ko-ryori small plates kind of place. They had to tell customers they do not serve sushi so many times, and eventually they caved in… with a really s**thole course of hamachi, unagi, and tuna nigiri. Sigh.

As much as I am wary of the place, I think I get what n/Naka is trying to do. The theme is to represent California and highlight Japanese in California at the same time. The wafu pasta course sounds super fun, though some of the other dishes I’m not so sure how they are. (The Yuzu Omoi sake pairing for example…that’s a little odd as I would say it’s more of a digestiv, plus it’s a $20 ish retail bottle).

Inevitably during my Japan trip planning, I did come across a female run kappo kaiseki restaurant and she too incorporates a nigiri course as well, though the pictures look far better. The place is Kappo Chiei (割烹 智映) in Ginza, and maybe $200 a person (more if you go through a booking service) and of course in the back of my mind I thought about n/Naka. Different styles and approaches though. Though not a bad thing if KC existed in LA or somewhere else in California or if the styles were similar.

As far as sake goes, it may be easier for me to think about what works at Shiki with Mori/Nao than taking a stab with n/Naka (though haven’t seen a sake menu there other than the old sample from the website). That bottle of Junmai Ginjo I’ve never seen before but looks interesting and kudos for the waitstaff for recommending one that doesn’t break the bank. That expensive bottle of Akita prefecture sake…I’m sure it’s good but not sure if it is worth that much more (maybe it’s on par with the Fukukomachi limited edition at Shiki)…Akita prefecture sakes tend to be more floral and feminine so it would fit the style of the food (and perhaps sake from Hiroshima and Kyoto with their soft water base). In that case, it’s easier to buy a bottle of Chokaisan Junmai Daiginjo, a beautiful value Akita prefecture sake (not sure if SoCal Whole Foods has it) or order from K&L and pay corkage.


#14

It’s actually really helpful to hear a comment like that, esp since I was planning to go this year. I do agree that, for that $, it’s reasonable to have high expectations. Certainly seems like you gave a well-balance review.

I might end up trying Shunji instead. :slight_smile:

BTW, I vaguely recall Cassia having a black cod dish, and it was quite good (if very expensive).


#15

Just to clarify, it’s about $250pp for food/tax/tip.


#16

I know nothing about sake but have read many of your reviews and commentary on sake. We went to n/naka once on an expense account. I ordered the Born Dreams Come True sake because I recalled your recommendation. I believe it was ~$400 (don’t quote me on that). It was easily the best sake I’ve ever had. I would never paid for that with my own money but was a nice experience to know what a very high quality sake tastes like. Thanks.

That is truly terrible. The 2 times we’ve been to n/naka this was easily the best dish. One of our group’s collective top bites of 2017. We actually ordered an extra serving both times. For the amount of money it costs to dine at n/naka you’d hope that the execution was higher even if they were making a large batch at once. What a shame.


#17

Good point. For 2 of our friends (the ones who visit Japan 5 - 6 times a year to eat), they didn’t go into their 1st visit at n/naka thinking it was “Kaiseki” (and they’ve been to most of the highly recommended ones in Kyoto), but they came away disappointed. They actually managed to visit Chef Nakayama 4 times (to give it a fair shake) and currently their takeaway is that it’s not worth going to (for them).

For us, we went in with a totally open mind, super excited to try a place I had been hoping to visit for years. And it resulted in the experience above.

Wow, that’s good to hear how Raku’s Sashimi is comparing to your recent Tokyo meals. Thanks for the perspective.

Thanks for the recommendation on Chokaisan. :slight_smile: And yes, I think for your next visit, you should go visit Mori-san and say “Hi”.


#18

Hi @paranoidgarliclover,

Thanks. All I can do is write how my own experience went; and it’s never fun writing about a less-than-stellar restaurant experience (we’re always hoping to have a great meal, whenever we go out).

Wait. How have you not tried Shunji yet?! :wink: I always figured you’ve been at least a few times. I’d recommend the more inexpensive, more approachable, and more enjoyable Shunji first if you haven’t gone. :slight_smile:

And if he’s offering a choice of Black Sesame or Black Truffle Ice Cream at the end, get both! :blush:


#19

Thanks for the report @Chowseeker1999. It’s disappointing to hear about your experience, especially with the spaghetti, which is easily my favorite dish there. I wonder if them serving you such a small portion had anything to do with it being lukewarm.


#20

Yikes, thanks for the report @Chowseeker1999, too much advance planning for a lukewarm meal. Off my list…


#21

Yes now that you mentioned it I do remember mentioning that now. So glad you tried it on an expense account. I’ve had Born Dreams Come True about 3 times now, first time splendid, 2nd time it wasn’t the best bottle, and the 3rd time the bottle was really good (and by then I had maybe 4 other sakes from 1.8 L bottles…).

It’s not the absolute best sake in the world but for the price point it has far more depth, presence, structure, aroma than say Dassai Beyond (super clean) and is hard not to like. Quite unbelievable for a 5 year aged Junmai Daiginjo. Plus it’s a damn beautiful gold and luxuriant looking bottle that is designed to wow and impress (if not shock and awe). You can find Dreams Come True at Hi Time Costa Mesa for $220 (best price maybe?) and Mel & Rose had it for $249 (out of stock). San Francisco’s Nijiya has it somewhere between those prices, so maybe it can be special ordered at a Southern California Nijiya? I would imagine this bottle would be fun to drink at places like Providence, maybe even Maude, Trois Mec kind of places… but it may be a slightly tougher pairing with say, grilled beef. Paying retail + corkage sure beats paying markup…