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.
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!
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.
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. It is pure evil and generally not pleasant (tasting like rotting, super sticky, stinky & slimy Beans).
Given that caveat, this was delicious! 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. 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).
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.
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. The Dumpling skin was too soft and soggy. 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.
The Kinki from Santa Barbara was chewy.
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.
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)…
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.
Best dish of the evening by far.
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. 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!).
Taking a bite, I could taste a real deep, (good) briny Mentaiko Sauce permeating the Spaghetti… but it was lukewarm!
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.
If this was served hot, I think it would’ve been stellar. As it was? It was tasty, but slightly offputting. 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. 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.
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. 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! 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. (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! 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. (A far cry from Mori Sushi’s legendary Hand Rolls.)
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.
Trio of Cookies: Chocolate, Huckleberry, Mexican Wedding:
The Cookies were OK, except the Mexican Wedding Cookie which was fantastic! 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.
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).
3455 S. Overland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Tel: (310) 836-6252
Update 1: Follow-up dinner with Autumn seasonal items.