Spring California Kaiseki at n/naka (Palms): A Pictorial Essay

A seat at the table for n/naka is one of the toughest to procure in Los Angeles. And rightly so, because at n/naka, Chef Niki Nakayama and Chef Carole Iida have become hugely popular in striving to create truly memorable, personal dining experiences for each and every guest, night after night. Their ‘Modern Kaiseki’ is on the radars of destination diners not just locally, but globally. It is often said that if the Michelin Guide ever returns to Los Angeles, n/naka would undoubtedly be a Michelin three-star contender. Having been fortunate enough to dine there myself on several occasions since its inception, I would agree with the above contention wholeheartedly.

And yet, from this seemingly unassailable position, there have been some recent reports of less-than-stellar meals at n/naka. Some of the criticisms were leveled at the sushi portion of the meal, where others have hinted about a general lack of attention to detail which have marred some dishes.

Upon reading these reviews, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been to n/naka since Chef Niki chose to eschew the longstanding menu, and began serving her ‘California Kaiseki’ format late last year. The ‘California Kaiseki’ menu at n/naka pays even more respect to the local sourcing ethos found within traditional Japanese kaiseki philosophy. These days at n/naka, every effort is made to procure local California ingredients in the preparation of the meal (thereby eschewing the old tendencies of procuring foodstuffs mainly from Japan). In other words, old philosophy, but modern sourcing.

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Well, well, well… Look like it’s time for me to go back and try the ‘California Kaiseki’ for myself! (Endless Thanks to @Ns1 for the reservations!)

Saki Zuke (a pairing of something common and something unique): Kumamoto oyster, potato cake, turnip puree, soy reduction, vinegar gelée… Delicate yet daring.

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Zensai (seasonal ingredients presented as an appetizer): Five spectacular bites!

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Black cod, enoki, yuzu reduction… Good God! Melt-in-my-mouth black cod!

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Baby squid tempura, grated daikon, ponzu… Who doesn’t like tender fried calamari?!

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Steamed Kabocha, stir-fried broccolini, marinated shiitake… The three combined were very interesting

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Bigeye sashimi, yamaimo… The Bigeye is from Hawaiian waters.

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Strawberry emulsion, mint… The first strawberries of the season are already packed with fruity tang.

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Modern Zukuri (modern interpretation of sashimi): Smoked salmon, dill, kelp, beet chip, pea puree… Homage to the deli life? This was tasty.

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Owan (still water): Dashi, Manila clam, fennel, dandelion, ice plant… So much flavor, packed into a few sips! The ice plant is a relatively succulent vegetable. Fun to eat.

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Denshin Haru “Spring” Junmai Ginjo Nama Sake… Sughoi!

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Otsukuri (traditional seasonal sashimi): Kinmedai, hotategai, hirame, shima aji, hotaru ika, with house shoyu… With the exception of the hotategai, which hailed from Hokkaido, all the seafood in this dish were from local fisheries.

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Agemono: Grilled branzino with fried branzino skin, sugar snap pea puree, agretti, spinach, house shoyu… This reminded me of the terrific dishes with peas at Spring!

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Mushimono (steamed course): Sea lettuce dashi with foie gras, takenoko… Sea lettuce dashi is a new experience for me. And who’d have thought to pair baby bamboo shoots with rich foie gras?!

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Shiizakana (not bound by tradition): Surprise! There were TWO choices of pastas in this course, and of course we chose BOTH! The first pasta is the n/naka signature baby abalone, mentaiko, and Burgundy truffle spaghettini. This single dish has been THE standard bearer for n/naka’s excellence. And again, it simply does not disappoint. So, so delicious!

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The second pasta is a new seasonal creation for n/naka: Santa Barbara spot prawn, prawn roe, uni and truffle spaghettini. Just when I thought the baby abalone pasta was the best plate in town, along comes this indescribably flavorful, balanced dish. This beautiful pasta is pretty much perfect on all fronts: Taste, texture, and execution. It is an instant California classic. Shrimp brains rule. Definitely a contender for BITE OF THE YEAR.

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Dewazakura Izumi Judan “Tenth Degree” Ginjo Dry Sake… Pairs so well with Japanese beef!

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Niku (beef course): Miyazaki A5 wagyu, with butterfly wood sorrel, squashini, carrot puree… Gorgeously marbled, luxurious Japanese beef, the way it should be enjoyed. As its name would suggest, squashini is a hydrid between squash and zucchini subspecies.

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Sunomono: Tiger prawn on cucumber, vinegar gelée, yuzu sake…

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Sushi: I looked really hard to find the faults within the sushi courses that others had written about of late. But I found none of them. There was precision in the knifework for the neta. I thought the shari was pearly; it was served at the pleasant temperature, and correctly packed. Maybe the management really took the recent criticisms to heart and made the appropriate changes. Kudos.

Tai, and maguro zuke… Perfectly aged tuna and nikiri profile.

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Sayori, with finger lime “caviar” and cured egg miso, and botan ebi… The whimsical philosophical dichotomy of “decorated” versus “simple” is hereforth presented by Niki-san. Both achieve happiness on my palate.

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Akamutsu, and ikura/bafun uni gunkan… The rosy seabass is very much having its moment as THE neta of choice amongst sushi cognoscenti.

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Wataraigani temaki… Marking the end of the sushi portion of the meal. The nori was a bit limp (a rare misstep, but not a fatal one), but the shari shines through.

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Asari daikon miso soup… Cleanses the palate as we prepare for…

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Dessert time!!!

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Sakura ice cream, plum juice shave ice, shiso leaf… Why Hello, you new flavor combination! Where have you been all my life?! This was SUPERB.

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Matcha… Hers and his!

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Blueberry sorbet with blackberry puree, cotton candy, sponge cake, crème Chantilly, mint cream, salted hojicha cream caramel panna cotta… Whoa. That blueberry shows some incredible intensity! The salted hojicha cream was a tad too salted, but it was easily countered by the fantastic caramel panna cotta!

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Matcha chocolate truffle, rhubarb ganache… Birthday treat from the kitchen!

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California pecan and chocolate petit fours… Keepin’ it local.

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Digestif: Brachetto d’Acqui… From Piemonte. Slight, but handsomely sweet, much like Mona Lisa’s smile.

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As is standard for n/naka, service was cordial while impeccable to the point of utmost professionalism. An unintentionally dropped utensil at a neighboring table took less than 10 seconds for a ninja-stealthy replacement to occur.

I gotta admit, when Chef Niki first announced last year that she’d re-vamp her original menu at n/naka and also change to mostly local suppliers, I was secretly concerned. I mean, who could beat Japan in sourcing for kaiseki ingredients? But through this glorious meal, Niki-san and Carole-san show us that it CAN be done. California yields excellent produce and seafood, and we Californians should be proud of that. There were some ingredients I’ve never had before (ice plant, agretti, and squashini, just to name a few). Much credit also goes to the team for execution. And, though seasonal in its offering, n/naka’s Santa Barbara spot prawn spaghettini dish is (dare I say it?) even better than its signature baby abalone spaghettini!

Easily, my spring dinner at n/naka was one of my best meals of the last few years, and in my book, this restaurant remains one of the top dining experiences in the United States.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

n/naka
3455 Overland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
310.836.6252
n-naka.com

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That spot prawn dish makes me regret my decision.

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What was the drink in the first glass with the Zensai? White Burgundy?

Great report. I went in early March (had an almost entirely different menu than you) and it was absolutely perfect.

It is certainly one of my favorite places (if not my favorite) in town.

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