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n/naka: Modern Culinary Excellence in Palms [long review + photos]

J.L. Aug 13, 2011 03:15 AM

Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve contributed a restaurant review to this board. Honestly, with the recent addition of a Chowpup to our Chowbrood, it’s been quite daunting finding enough spare time to adequately prepare a proper writeup. However, some treasures must be shared, and I think it’s high time Los Angeles gets to know n/naka, Chef Niki Nakayama’s new roost located in Palms (yes, Palms).

I’ve been following the artistry of Chef Nakayama since her days at Azami Sushi on Melrose. A few years ago, after her stint at Azami, she made the move to Arcadia and opened Inaka, serving fantastic kaiseki-style menus with modern touches. With Inaka, it was quickly evident that this sushi shokunin was ably diversifying her repertoire and making forays into Japanese-influenced fine dining. However, despite all that talent, and a die-hard core legion of followers and repeat customers, Inaka never really “took off” in terms of mass popularity. Perhaps the dining populace at-large wasn’t ready for the fact that there was no menu at Inaka, and that the tasting menu changed often, based on seasonality and sourcing of ingredients. There was also no liquor license at Inaka, which can be a bit of a drawback at a restaurant building its business solely on tasting menus. It was with sadness that I enjoyed one of the last meals served at Inaka in late 2010. At that time, I did not know what the future held for Chef Nakayama.

Therefore, it was heartening to learn of the debut of n/naka, which opened for business a few months back. With n/naka, her latest venture, Chef Nakayama demonstrates that she has even further refined her already impressive skills. The tasting menu format is still at the Chef’s whimsy (and I like it that way) Advanced reservations are preferred, since each tasting meal at n/naka is suited to the sensitivities of the would-be diner.

First, the space & location: Located squarely within the rental-predominant Westside area known as Palms, n/naka shares its environs with Chego and Scoops Westside, decidedly more casual eateries. It is not a place one would typically expect this level of fine-dining, but L.A. has always been a “treasure around every corner” type of town. Parking is easy, as there is a small lot behind the restaurant and plentiful street parking abound. The dining room itself is tastefully minimalist, with clean lines and comfortable chairs. Formerly a day spa, the interior of n/naka has been transformed into an astonishingly diner-friendly, tranquil and intimate space.

Service: This was admittedly somewhat of a weakness at Chef Nakayama’s former restaurant, Inaka. But rest assured, at n/naka, service has improved to the next level, commensurate with the refinement of the food served. Plus, n/naka has obtained a liquor license! A gorgeous glass-enclosed wine cellar adorns one wall of the dining area. There is also a beer & sake list available, with many intriguing foreign selections. For my alcohol, I chose a simple Echigo beer for starters and then opened a bottle of my own Silverado cab as the beef was served. Corkage is set at $25 per bottle.

Onwards to the menu! There are 3 tasting menu options at n/naka: Chef’s Tasting ($110, 9 courses), Modern Kaiseki ($165, 13 courses) & Vegetarian ($110, 10 courses). As an omnivore, I think the Modern Kaiseki menu would be the best way to experience the full breadth of Chef Nakayama’s prowess on the first visit. Honestly, my Modern Kaiseki meal was more than 13 courses. And given the quality and depth of the offerings, at $165 per head, it still ranks as great a value in my book. (Forgive me for my usual crappy photography.)

Course #1: Saki Zuke (a pairing of something common and something unique): Cauliflower tofu, marinated ikura, uni butter & micro greens... Topped with black truffles, this starter was simply phenomenal.

Course #2(a-d): Zensai (main seasonal ingredients presented as an appetizer "quartet"):
Course #2a: Maryland soft-shelled crab tempura, avocado "sphere", with roasted red bell pepper sorbet and braised halibut roe: A nod to the “molecularists”, I suppose.
Course #2b: Seared toro sushi
Course #2c: Miso-marinated black cod, with lotus root chips: This is the best miso cod I’ve had so far in L.A.
Course #2d: "Dynamite" of awabi & scallops

Course #3: Modern Zukuri (modern interpretation of sashimi): Jeju Island Ikejime fluke, with garlic aioli & yuzu kimchee air: Yes, yuzu kimchee air. And it works.

Course #4: Owan "Still Water": Pacific lobster "shinjyo"- mousseline, chef's garden momotaro tomato, dashi broth, fennel: Superb! This was a highlight of the meal. Executed with subtlety, yet maximizing the qualities of each component on the palate.

Course #5: Otsukuri (traditional sashimi): Bigeye o-toro, hamachi, madai, Santa Barbara ama ebi, Kumamoto oyster: Super fresh.

Course #6: Mushimono: Slow-grilled Japanese sazae conch shell, with Mitsuba dashi & uzura (quail) egg: The conch is served in its own shell and cooking broth: Outstanding.

Course #7: Yakimono: Japanese eggplant, foie gras sweet miso & balsamic vinegar: Fantastic.

Course #8: Shiizakana (not bound by tradition, the Chef's choice dish to be paired with wine): Awabi (abalone), pickled cod roe spaghetti, with abalone liver & truffle sauce: Frankly, one of the most delicious pasta dishes I’ve ever encountered. This made my evening… Actually, made my week.

Course #9: Niku: Snake River Farms wagyu beef "Ishiyaki", mushroom & butter with soy tare dip: This dish is meant to be seared by the diner over a very hot stone.

Course #10: Sunomono: Engawa (halibut fin) ceviche, paired with yuzu sake: I’ve never tried engawa as a ceviche before – It’s a winner!

Course #11(a-e): Shokuji One & Two (rice dish - sushi): Note: All the sushi was of highest quality.
Course #11a: Kurodai (snapper) & o-toro
Course #11b: Shima aji (yellowjack mackerel) & buri toro (yellowtail belly)
Course #11c: Hotategai (live scallop) & uni
Course #11d: Shinkomaki (pickled cucumber rolls) with gari (vinegared ginger)
Course #11e: Masu (sea trout) from Tasmania, ikura, rice, sesame, and nori (seaweed) chazuke: The sea trout really had a nice fleshy tenderness to it.

Now, onto desserts! Hot tea was served.

Course #12: Green tea crème brûlée, served with fresh kiwifruit: Good, nothing special.

Course #13: Lemon white chocolate “cake” with strawberry compote: OK; the strawberry compote was super fresh, though.

The desserts were somewhat of an afterthought, but I was so impressed with the main portion of the modern kaiseki that I was already so happy even before the desserts were served.

Basically, if you’re halfway saved up for that epic meal at Urasawa, but can’t stand waiting anymore, n/naka is the answer to your prayers. Sure, other places in L.A. (such as Kiyokawa & Kiriko) are serving up sushi-centered omakase menus somewhat similar to the ones at n/naka, but I’d say the modern dishes in the Modern Kaiseki are more daring and refined at n/naka. And even Urasawa doesn’t have that incredible cod roe/abalone/truffle pasta dish.

Bottom line: n/naka is an absolute gem. I can’t wait to go back for Chef Nakayama’s autumn menu. Heck, I may even bring the young Chowpup with me!

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

-----
Urasawa Restaurant
218 N Rodeo Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

Kiriko
11301 W Olympic Blvd Ste 102, Los Angeles, CA 90064

Azami
7160 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

Chego
3300 Overland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90034

Scoops Westside
10640 Woodbine St, Los Angeles, CA 90034

n/naka
3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  1. Porthos Oct 6, 2012 09:21 AM

    Just had the abalone and summer black truffle spaghettini at n/naka last night. It was simply amazing. Paired with a 2004 Niellon Chevalier Montrachet, it may be one of the best tastes I've ever had.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Porthos
      r
      Robert Thornton Oct 6, 2012 10:45 AM

      Impressive pairing!

      1. re: Porthos
        J.L. Oct 6, 2012 01:46 PM

        Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did, Porthos.

      2. b
        bulavinaka Jun 16, 2012 08:13 AM

        J.L., Jonathan Gold concurs with your bottom line - nice write-up:

        http://www.latimes.com/features/home/...

        3 Replies
        1. re: bulavinaka
          f
          foodiemahoodie Jun 16, 2012 04:17 PM

          One good thing about n/naka - besides was that it was - more or less - undiscoved. The location adds a bit of mystery, but the place really hasn't caught on. What was good about that was that I could get in on a moment's notice. But I called a few days ago for tonight - and they're full booked. Hm. What happened? Oh...this review explains it.

          Okay, so I'm gonna have to book ahead now. Upshot of that is that they'll stay in business. Last time I went the place was less than half full.

          It was (and probably still is) a perfect first date place - the mysteryiousness (that a word?) and semi-secret nature of the place (location, no sign, no valet, no art on the walls) makes you look like you're a member of some secret culinary cabal. Which of course I am.

          1. re: bulavinaka
            J.L. Jun 16, 2012 07:14 PM

            Heheheh... For once, JGold is following me to a great restaurant, rather than the other way around!

            1. re: J.L.
              b
              bulavinaka Jun 17, 2012 08:21 AM

              You're being too modest...

          2. f
            foodiemahoodie Mar 22, 2012 03:14 PM

            Finally went here (I'd been making plans with a group of friends which kept falling through so I gave up and went with the GF).

            Place is pretty great. I like the whole package - the location, the lack of signage, the nearly secretive, low profile feel to it. You get a sense of being in some kind of classified information. Which is all find IF the food works. And the food does work. J.L. was right in describing it was a lower cost alternative to Urasawa. It is more conventionally laid out in a variety of rooms and instead of having the theater of Hiro behind a sushi bar (which I prefer) your food comes out of a kitchen in the back. All fine with me. The service was professional, the sommelier informative and friendly. And the food varied from quite good to very good to excellent. (not unlike most of the better restaurants in L.A.) Kind of a cross between Melisse and Urasawa, in an upscale, but not haute formal. It's not cheap, but not as expensive as Melisse or Urasawa. Or Mori for that matter. No cheap, but kind of a bargain. I look forward to returning.

            1 Reply
            1. re: foodiemahoodie
              J.L. Mar 22, 2012 04:50 PM

              Thanks for reporting back!

            2. t
              TailbackU Aug 18, 2011 04:51 PM

              OMG, I must go.....

              Thanks for the review!

              I went to Azami when she was behind the bar, and while I thought it was solid, it wasn't anythign mind blowing. But i feel that her talents are really showing with this kaiseki style meals.

              -----
              Azami
              7160 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

              1. J.L. Aug 17, 2011 04:42 PM

                Thanks for all your kinds words. This encourages me to write further reviews in the future and share more of my crappy photography.

                1 Reply
                1. re: J.L.
                  Tripeler Aug 17, 2011 05:19 PM

                  I would be interested in seeing your crappy photography, because what you have shown so far has been surprisingly good. Keep writing your reviews -- they are interesting and informative.

                2. c
                  coffeebrownies Aug 14, 2011 05:00 PM

                  Is there a way to eat there and eat less food and spend less money?

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: coffeebrownies
                    Jordan Aug 14, 2011 06:46 PM

                    They have a nine-course meal (which is what we had) that runs $110. But, no, they don't offer a la carte service.

                  2. Jordan Aug 13, 2011 08:14 PM

                    Nice review. I was there last night -- we had the shorter tasting menu, which was still a three hour production! Many of the dishes we had were the same, with some differences. The food ranged from very good to exceptional, and the service was great. A few in my party had the wine pairing, which was very impressive and also left them rather well sloshed.

                    Standouts for me were the pasta (which you mentioned -- to me, it tasted like a rich carbonara, an effect carried off without any cheese!), the sushi, the waygu beef, the potato croquette, the black cod, and the "lobster ball" in tomato broth.

                    Outstanding and unique -- get there ASAP!

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Jordan
                      J.L. Aug 17, 2011 04:41 PM

                      Thanks for reporting back, Jordan. Yeah, those wine pairings can easily make a person tipsy! Glad you enjoyed n/naka as I did.

                      -----
                      n/naka
                      3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034

                      1. re: Jordan
                        TonyC Aug 17, 2011 04:55 PM

                        This was a major problem at the old Azami. The "old", lesser, omakase took a whopping 2.5+ hours. If pacing is still so piss poor, I don't want to return (and I haven't).

                        For $110, both Mako and Kiyokawa can deliver more than solid punches. If I want Japanese pasta, I'd go to Spoon House. Unconvinced.

                        -----
                        Spoon House
                        1601 W Redondo Beach Blvd, Gardena, CA 90247

                        Azami
                        7160 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

                        1. re: TonyC
                          a
                          andytseng Aug 17, 2011 05:24 PM

                          I love Kiyokawa, but there is still room for n/naka in my lineup. Kiyokawa's tasting menu always seems to tell a similar story, and I consider them very different experiences. I don't think you would ever find things like the kyoto carrot broth spherification or the egg and crab dish. From the Inaka days, I also remember having a creamy orrecchiette w/ yuzu zest that was pretty delicious.

                          -----
                          n/naka
                          3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034

                          1. re: TonyC
                            Jordan Aug 17, 2011 07:49 PM

                            "Piss poor?" It's nine courses over three hours.

                            1. re: TonyC
                              J.L. Aug 17, 2011 09:26 PM

                              Not everyone likes to linger over dinner as I like to do.

                              LOVE the epic 5+ hour dinners I've had at Urasawa and Bistro LQ.

                              My Modern Kaiseki at n/naka took about 4.5+ hours... Not a pacing issue, when the kitchen is adept. It's more of a stomach space issue for me.

                              -----
                              Urasawa Restaurant
                              218 N Rodeo Dr, Beverly Hills, CA 90210

                              Bistro LQ
                              8009 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048

                              n/naka
                              3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034

                          2. ipsedixit Aug 13, 2011 12:38 PM

                            Great review. Thanks. She's a great great loss to Arcadia.

                            1. Porthos Aug 13, 2011 11:50 AM

                              Looks great JL. As always great photos and review. The sushi looks impressive as does the entire meal. It's about time LA got a high end kaiseki option south of $500pp.

                              1. Tripeler Aug 13, 2011 07:07 AM

                                Brilliant and informative report, J.L. and the photos really made me hungry!
                                (I couldn't hear even a trace of stutter anywhere -- very well stated, particularly the conceptual parts)
                                どうもありがとうございます!

                                1. J.L. Aug 13, 2011 03:26 AM

                                  Note: While Inaka in Arcadia is currently still an active business address, Chef Nakayama is no longer affiliated with it in any way.

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