At its heart and soul, n/naka has always been guided by the talented Chef Niki Nakayama. Back in 2012, when it was considered a local gem, this unassuming-looking restaurant in Palms has since garnered much international acclaim and well-deserved success. Producer David Gelb’s Netflix “Chef’s Table” series (featuring Chef Niki in Season One), has propelled n/naka to new stratospheric heights of popularity. But despite all the accolades, Niki-san continues to look for new ways to intimately share her culinary vision to each of her guests during each individual visit.
Dining at this level is often a study in contrasts, and very subtle ones at that. This is where Chef Niki truly demonstrates her prowess. The n/naka Modern Kaiseki is a $185 per person (food only) adventure unlike any other in Los Angeles - Seasonal, contemplative, and above all, flat-out delicious.
Saki zuki course (pairing something common with something unique): Sazae (sea conch), roasted konbu soup, konbu dashi foam, potato puree, caviar… The muscular flesh of the conch and the konbu foam contrasts the dense versus the ethereal. The caviar, borne of water, meets the earthy potato in one spoon.
Zensai course (seasonal ingredients presented as appetizer): (1) Goma dofu (sesame tofu) with zuwaigani (snow crab), (2) Whitefish ceviche with potato puff & cherry tomato, (3) Nasu (eggplant) miso with shishito & sesame seed, (4) Sautéed local rock cod with miso & lemon sauce, and (5) Junsai (water shield) served with tsukemono (pickled) cucumber… Wow… I would never have imagined combining eggplant with shishito and sesame. That was one splendid bite.
Modern Zukuri course (modern interpretation of sashimi): Hotategai (scallops) from Hokkaido, with fresh chive sauce, yuzu sauce, radish, young shiso & tomato… This was really essentially two dishes in one, as the scallops paired so radically differently with the chive sauce as with the yuzu sauce. Smart.
Owan mono course (“still water”): Campari tomato broth with ise ebi shinjo (spiny lobster cake)… This was an excellent clear broth. One often thinks of tomato broth as an opaque affair, but the delicate, understated tomato flavor here was a perfect match to the spiny lobster cake.
Otsukiri course (traditional sashimi): Honmaguro akami and o-toro (bluefin tuna lean and fatty cuts), ika (squid), tai (red seabream) and kinmedai (golden eye snapper)… Gorgeously cut and plated, this was sashimi of the highest caliber. The temperature of the sashimi was just a tad too cold upon reaching the table, but this is a rare minor misstep.
Yakimono course (flame-grilled food): Unagi (freshwater eel), shiitake mushroom, Hudson Valley foie gras with balsamic reduction, topped with foie gras au jus and strawberry… Just extraordinary. The slight tartness of the strawberry just made this combination so very special.
Mushimono course (steamed/fried food): Poached local hirame (flatfish; in this case local halibut) with sazae (sea conch) soup, beet puree, fried edible rice paper, & stewed cabbage… So many components, and yet so beautiful in its complexity.
Shiizakana (not bound by tradition; the Chef’s choice dish): Spaghettini with abalone, mentaiko (pickled cod roe), Burgundy summer truffles, topped with baby daikon radish… Chef Niki’s signature pasta is one of the very BEST pasta dishes on planet Earth - It’s THAT wonderful.
Niku course (meat; in this case Japanese beef): Grade A5 wagyu from Miyazaki, quick-seared with sea salt rub, kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) puree, wasabi sauce, beet chip, roasted cauliflower and Brussel sprout… An inventive take on the classic meat & starch dish, the n/naka way…
Sunomono course (vinegared preparation): Kumamoto oyster with vinegar ponzu, ikura (salmon roe), nasturtium, served with a shot of Yamamoto yuzu omoi junmai sake… The brine within the shucked oyster was accentuated with the vinegar, and the yuzu sake ‘chased’ this delectable slurp to great effect.
Sake: Born “Gold” junmai daiginjo… What dreams are made of…
Shokuji (rice-based) / Sushi courses: Let’s not forget that Chef Niki’s roots are in sushi. The shari (sushi rice) on this evening’s meal was exemplary. The nigiri were served in pairs. Gari was presented:
(1) Engawa (halibut fin) with yuzu kosho (grated yuzu peel with green chili pepper salt)… (2) Akamutsu (rosy seabass)…
(3) Chu-toro (medium fatty tuna)… (4) Sawara (Spanish mackerel)…
(5) Ama ebi (sweet prawn)… (6) Uni (sea urchin roe)…
Miso soup with fried tofu & onion… Deceivingly simple, but the fried tofu with onion really stood out. Almost like a Japanese version of the French classic soup à l’oignon.
Kani temaki (blue crab handroll)… Delicious crunch on that grilled nori (seaweed)!
Cantaloupe sorbet with matcha… The cantaloupe was decadently fresh, and it paired quite harmoniously with the slight bitterness of the frothy matcha.
Hojicha (roasted green tea)… Signaling dessert!!!
Pistachio cannoli, caramel green tea sauce, pistachio ice cream, plum, with plum sauce… Ingredients “crossing over” back on itself, the pistachio-on-pistachio and plum-on-plum action almost took a backseat to my discovering that caramel and green tea made for an extremely formidable duo.
Bonus dessert from the kitchen (one of our party was celebrating a very Happy Birthday): Crème caramel with pomelo, pink grapefruit and lavender biscotti… Superb (even without the candle!)!!!
Mignardise: Chocolate truffle with sea salt and caramel… A fantastic finish to another masterpiece meal.
Ever humble, Chef Niki came out to greet her guests graciously at the end of the seating. She says she is sourcing lots of her vegetables from her own Farmscape garden these days. Drawing inspiration from local sources is a basic tenet of kaiseki ryori, so Chef Niki is currently exploring the idea of an “All-Californian” menu (which may be debuting later this year). Exciting changes are afoot!
This was my eighth visit to n/naka. I am of the firm belief that a fine restaurant, even one at the pinnacle of its success, must evolve in order to continue meaningful engagement of its diners. This begs the question: Can a restaurant perform better and better on each successive visit? Whenever I’ve dined at n/naka, the answer continues to be a resounding ‘YES!’
3455 S. Overland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90034