[Forbes] Exclusive Interview: N/Naka Chef Niki Nakayama On The Art Of California Kaiseki



Ugh. As if that reservation wasn’t hard enough already!


I’m never going to get to eat there now.


It’s fine, the place isn’t that amazing. Very good, but… you if you’re that upset about not being able to go to a place to spend $250 on food, it is worthwhile to go up to SF for a weekend.

If you’re stuck living in LA, and can’t ever leave due to an obscenely demanding job that requires you to work 20 hours a day 7 days a week, well… fuck… you’re life is hell already.

Which restaurants are serving California kaiseke in San Francisco?

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Kaiseki is analogous to Western Haute cuisine:

So California Kaiseki is essentially just literally high-end food using California produce? So all of the 2 and 3 michelin star places do it. Saison, Benu, Crenn, Quince, Manresa, Baume, Coi, Commis, etc… I would argue Californios as well. Perhaps also Mosu, Wako, Wakuriya, Sons and Daughters, Mourad, Acquellero, and maybe Lord Stanley.

If you insist on a Japanese theme, then Mosu, Wako, and Wakuriya; Mosu specifically describes themselves as American Kaiseki, but the other two also take on the kaiseki format fairly explicitly:


Are you saying that you feel all those places are better than N/naka?

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No. While high-end tasting menus might at times be similar to a kaiseki menu, they are not really the same thing necessarily. Kaiseki involves a distinct progression. While the above restaurants may incorporate elements of kaiseki, don’t conflate the two by default.


That’s a bit of a false syllogism.

  • n/naka serves California kaiseki
  • other restaurants in SF also serve California kaiseki
  • ergo, one can go to restaurants in SF that serve California kaiseki instead of n/naka

People want to go to n/naka not necessarily to experience California kaiseki per se (although that might be part of it), but to dine at n/naka in particular, and to enjoy the craft of Chef Niki Nakayama specifically.

By your logic, instead of going to Bestia a person could just as easily go to Sotto or Mozza or even Olive Garden because all those places serve, ahem, Italian.

No dice.


Sushi is just Japanese-themed crudo.
Dobinmushi is just Japanese-themed consommé.
Sunimono is just Japanese-themed kosher dills.

I’ve learned a lot. Perhaps the most important is a new way to completely marginalize an entire cuisine!

It’s a bit incongruous to insist on the uniqueness of say the French-styled pastas of Republique in one thread but then later claim that Quince=n/naka.

n/naka isn’t for everyone. But I am always heartened to know that there is one fewer person between me and reservation at n/naka.

You can get a res! It’s just likely to be a dining-as-event kind of night. I don’t generally plan my dinners more than a night or two in advance. Usually even less. This is more like planning a month in advance.

But I think it’s worth it for n/naka. Do it!

Many of them, yes; the ones that aren’t cost half the price of N/Naka, while being 9/10ths of the way there.

I was more saying, if you are really looking to drop $250+ on dinner, you can get into a number of amazing places in SF rather than wait around for an N/Naka reservation.

Well, if you’re the authority I guess. What about Mosu that specifies being kaiseki specifically?

To me, personally, the progression did nothing special; it didn’t feel much different from the way meals are done at haute cuisine places. But I mainly look at flavor of food as the paramount criterion, so possible some magic of the progression is just lost on me.

What is California Kaiseki exactly? I personally don’t know what the term really means, just trying to piece it together with definitions of Kaiseki.

Realistically, to me, the food tastes much better at the places in SF that charge similar amounts for meals as N/Naka.

If it’s just getting off on a specific “type” of cuisine…I am sort of lost on that I guess.

On that, we agree.

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Your definition is inaccurate and way too broad. If you’re going to reduce it down to that lowest common denominator, then the floodgates are open such that the descriptor “kaiseki” becomes meaningless. Kaiseki evolved from food served at Japanese tea ceremonies - there is a specific aesthetic viewpoint behind the food and the progression of the dishes.

With some variation, there is at least a soup dish, sashimi, steamed, fried, grilled, a rice dish, pickled dish, etc. etc. Certain types of courses following one another - some types of dishes would never follow one another. Also, flavor isn’t necessarily what’s driving the progression in a kaiseki meal. Texture, temperature, and technique are just as much determinants of what should follow what.

My guess is that when N/Naka decides to call its cuisine “California Kaiseki,” they are using the kaiseki format, not merely as an inspiration, but also as a blueprint which informs the menu’s progression. The kaiseki format provides some structure, even if N/Naka’s menu is not strictly kaiseki since N/Naka serves certain ingredients and dishes which would never be found in kaiseki proper. The abalone spaghettini is an itameshi dish that would not be found in kaiseki menus, but rather in Japanese-Italian cafes (despite it being their signature dish). However, there is a proper otsukuri course of sashimi, an owan course of “still water” soup, and the savory meal ends with soup and even a rice course of sorts - sushi. Sure, it doesn’t end with the traditional gohan and tsukemono per se, but the “sunomono” (which, by the way, is traditionally more of an appetizer) acts not only as a palette cleanser before dessert but also like tsukemono. N/Naka is kaiseki interpreted through the lense of a Japanese American living and working in Los Angeles and reflecting the produce and culinary zeitgeist of California.

That you didn’t understand the progression or notice its nuances is ok - but it doesn’t mean that the kaiseki blueprint is meaningless at N/Naka.

Sure, the food at some of those other restaurants may share some aesthetics to a kaiseki meal - sometimes coincidentally and sometimes as a nod to kaiseki, but most of those you mentioned are NOT explicitly setting out to create a California-inflected kaiseki meal like N/Naka is.

Mosu references kaiseki a bit more loosely than N/Naka does. The food at Mosu is an amalgamation of Japanese, Korean, and New American influences. Benu’s menu, generally, is more about French technique or ingredients applied to East Asian dishes (mainly Chinese and Korean). Benu’s “small bites” are closer to banchan than they are to sakizuki or zensai; the “quail egg potage” is an haute riff of Chinese thousand-year old egg congee. I could go on and on.

Sure, I’ve had a sashimi dish at Californios that was just as otsukuri-like as it was deconstructed aguachile, and amazing sashimi at Saison that may as well have been served in Japan, but by and large, the menus at the restaurants you mentioned (“all of the 2 and 3 michelin star places”) are better described by a phrase OTHER than “California Kaiseki.” Campton Place has 2 stars and nope, it’s not “California kaiseki,” not in the slightest. Which is completely fine - their cuisines are different, and there’s no need to incorrectly lump them all into the same category.

I’m not an authority. You’re just a bit misguided on this one. If you understand kaiseki or even the cuisine of the restaurants you listed (e.g. the Bay Area 3 star restaurants are all quite different), you’ll see that each of them has their own distinct viewpoint.

I’m not saying that N/Naka is the top in California, or that it’s even the only “California Kaiseki” restaurant in the state (Kenzo Napa, Hashiri, Wakuriya, etc. are all along those same lines, sometimes with more of a sushi focus just like Urasawa has)…all I’m saying is that virtually all of the others you listed (with the exception of Wakuriya) do not fall under the same umbrella, and that you’re generally abusing the term “kaiseki.” Hashiri? Sure. Quince? No.


You may not be an authority, but I certainly learned a lot from your post. Much appreciated.


Well, ok, I guess you should edit the Wikipedia page on the topic then. For anyone looking for anything from their meal other than a semi-strict observance of complex historical kaiseki traditions a lot of this makes little sense.

Many of the dishes felt very french to me in their flavors and composition; strawberry, foie gras, mushroom, brown butter sauce, for example, or mussels in cream and tarragon; the meal even finished with cannoli. Wagyu cut thick and grilled with charred cauliflower and roots. The signature pasta has already been discussed as not being Japanese. It seems like there is a lot of leeway to me, so very hard to follow where all of these strict lines are with kaiseki; the wikipedia definition of it as Japan’s form of haute cuisine made sense to me from my experience.

I will say, too, the interviews don’t help much. The chef never talks about this magical progression of dishes that follows all of these rules being the main selling point of the restaurant. She mainly talks about local sourcing of ingredients…which makes it even more confusing.

What are you supposed to feel from the specific progression of dishes exactly?

Not veryone likes or understands all food. If n/naka didn’t wow you, and the concept is too complicated, it’s okay. There is plenty of meat and pasta for you to enjoy in this wonderful city of ours.

I mean, I’m not a meat person, so I don’t particularly understand the nuances of one giant pork chop versus another giant pork chop, but I don’t worry my pretty little head over it.

If you can’t describe it, then it’s bullshit imo.

Rather hilarious, as I didn’t compare N/Naka to places serving large format meat dishes, but extended tasting menu places.

I am going to guess you’ve never eaten at any of the places in SF I listed, so you literally have no idea what you’re talking about. Good stuff.

I find it absolutely hilarious when people who are incapable of formulating their own thoughts resort to insults as their only method of justifying their preferences.

Even funnier because my only initial point was that if one wants to spend $250 on dinner and not wait 3 months, they can take a drive or a flight up to SF and spend that money on an equivalent meal (in terms of quality of cooking, immensity of flavor of food, and immaculate ingredients) quite easily.

I thought you never went.