n/naka serves modern kaiseki handcrafted by American born, Japanese heritage female chefs duet in Los Angeles. Chef Niki Nakayama is a celebrity to the Chef’s Table Netflix series audience, yet her talent was for long obscured by her modesty. With her partner in life and in the kitchen Carol Iida-Nakayama, they create a rare dining environment in LA. By typing its own personal story into the food n/naka is changing the fine dining concept of the LA offbeat culinary scene.
Empowering women and showing America the art of seasonal dining
The loud restaurant dining in America is challenged by the gender balanced team, that tames the atmosphere in the room. When entering the Cal-Japanese house of n/naka a sculpted – rocky boulder meets bonsai – garden introduces a zen mindset and fengshui balancing aesthetics. Right from the start, you know that this is not your typical LA outing.
Niki Nakayama goes further, provoking in the Netflix show: “people aren’t distracted by anything when eating at my restaurant”. Except for the muted conversations around the table, I can confirm her bold assurance. We were curiously immersed in every single course that appeared in front of us, and while remaining focused flattered to the chef’s skills with fresh ingredients. The food is presented as an art form, but at the same time the honest, seasonal produce is not excessively covered under sauces or foams. Unnecessary disguise of the natural food is against the rules of kaiseki, the Japanese multi-course tasting menu coveting seasonal abundance. “Complicated recipes might sound good on paper, but when you put it in your mouth, if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not a good dish… you crave things, you want to eat certain things.” the chef confessed for ‘The Talks’ interview. The tempura batter is used wisely with the Agemono, a fried dish of SOFT SHELL CRAB with BELL PEPPER VINAIGRETTE, but the SUNCHOKE, TOFU, ZUCCHINI, CAULIFLOWER with BELL PEPPER VINAIGRETTE AND PURPLE YAM PUREE on the vegetarian menu got somewhat lost in the powerful embrace of the deep-fried flour coat. The sticky rice MOCHI WRAPPED WITH FRIED TOFU, MISO, SCALLION ON THE HOUBA LEAF, shone though the tofu tempura dip. This was the vegetarian Niku, usually a meat course in contemporary kaiseki. Unlike with kaiseki ryori, monks vegan tasting menu similar to the New York’s Michelin stared Kajitsu, the vegetarian menu at n/naka ($160 per person) contains egg and dairy and any modification or vegan requests are declined.
Inspiration for a culinary seismic shift conceiving n/naka
After three-years working in Japan, cumulating with cooking at her relatives’ inn Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan where she trained under chef Masa Sato in the traditional art of kaiseki, she learned to allow her instinct to rule over her emotional and very personal cooking. Further inspired by “one bowl of soup at the perfect temperature, so simple, so clean… the seasoning was spot on” at her favourite restaurant in Japan – Kichisen, n/naka serves a multi-course menu in the kaiseki mode: Balance, strict sequence, and seasonality. The excellent three Michelin star modern kaiseki in Kyoto was coincidentally the first kaiseki that I had in Japan, and I am not surprised that dining there turned Niki Nakayama on to devote her new, very personal story of cooking at n/naka.
Deeply personal cooking
The restaurant uses the typically Japanese acronym of the chef’s name for its identity. In ‘The Talks’ interview she explained how mindfulness and instinct guide her through her creative process. “Certain dishes allow me to get to that point of singing to myself in my head because I’ve made them so many times, while others require more of my attention. For me, the goal is to reach that point where I’m not necessarily completely present. It’s a flow. And that’s what’s so enjoyable to get to in any work: to reach flow.” As a writer I cannot more agree. Still with discipline setting some limits to her creative flow she asks: “does it still taste Japanese?” If the answer is yes, then she sends it out of the kitchen to your table. Her first omakase sushi restaurant Azami “became very limiting” so creating “a unique experience in custom menus for every table” as “a very clear statement” of her cooking became the signature experience at n/naka. Each table experiences a slightly different menu. She tries to accommodate any requests ahead and curates the modern kaiseki to the person’s preferences. The well of customer knowledge stems from her detailed notes of each meal the reserved guest has at n/naka.
Modern kaiseki experience by Niki Nakayama
The thirteen courses ($185 per person) arrive in a relaxed sequence lasting about three hours. For some sparely eating ladies, this may be too much, but their dining partners are eager to help. Nothing goes to waste as my chopsticks firmly clasped the superb leftover sushi of our petite Taiwanese friend, a strict pescaterian (no beef, poultry, pork and foie gras), whose request was expanded to eliminate any shellfish in her tasting menu.
The first time we dined at n/naka we went for the unmodified modern kaiseki built upon the chef’s whim. Niki Nakayama accommodated a beef replacement for one person. A grilled fish was served instead.
Recently I embarked on the vegetarian menu, which in the fall can look like this:
The modern kaiseki is lighter than the traditional style mostly served in Kyoto. The temple of kaiseki there is Kikunoi, where the meal will sate you for days. Generous and for some non-Japanese diners it can be so atypical, that eating a turtle soup may offend you. We tried, but could not comprehend its appeal, it just tasted quite bland and the texture of the animal was unpleasant. Next time, I would advise the risk-averse diners to go avoid meat or go all vegetarian there. Vegetables like tomato, eggplant, cucumber, shishito pepper, chives, shiso leaf, passion fruit and micro leaves are from the chef’s garden. Cheese is handpicked by the chef from the nearby Santa Monica Farmers Market and tofu is from Meiji tofu in Gardena.
The recent menu we had at n/naka. V stands for the vegetarian tasting. My comments are brief for an open-minded experience.
(A PAIRING OF SOMETHING COMMON AND SOMETHING UNIQUE)
BLACK TIGER SHRIMP, FILLO, SHRIMP TOMALLY SAUCE, KABOCHA PUREE – elegant while decadent
V: GOLDEN CARROT, BEET, AVOCADO SAUCE – simple and genuine
(SEASONAL INGREDIENTS PRESENTED AS AN APPETIZER)
BLACK COD SHIMEJI YUZU AIOLI, RENKON TEMPURA WITH CURRY SEA SALT, IKA (squid) NATTO,
SHISHITO PEPPPER, BLUE SHRIMP AND MISO SAUCE, PICKLED WATERMELON RADISH, APRICOT JELLY
V: YUBA WITH TRUFFLE, TEMPURA RENKON, NATTO (a sticky fermented soy bean paste)
GRILLED JAPANESE EGGPLANT AND SHISHITO, PICKLED WATER MELON RADISH,
APRICOT STUFFED WITH PLUM JELLY – original play with local bounty
(MODERN INTERPRETATION OF SASHIMI)
MAGURO, BEET PUREE, NORI SAUCE, AVOCADO AND CHIVE SAUCE – exquisite tuna, the avocado cannot compete for me
V: AVOCADO, ROMAINE LETTUCE, ORANGE, BEET PUREE, ROMAINE LETTUCE SAUCE
(STILL WATER) soup – one of my favourite comforting courses at n/naka
MATSUTAKE, MITSUBA, SEABASS DOBIN MUSHI
V: MATSUTAKE, TAMAGO DOFU, SEA LETTUCE, MITSUBA
TRADITIONAL SASHIMI – a plate of superb quality raw fall fish
V: SEASONAL VEGETABLES – little boring without more diverse sauces
SOFT SHELL CRAB, BELL PEPPER VINAIGRETTE – cravings!
V: TEMPURA SUNCHOKE, TOFU, ZUCCHINI, CAULIFLOWER, BELL PEPPER VIANIGRETTE AND PURPLE YAM PUREE
UNI, LOBSTER, SATOIMO PUREE AND DASHI – Santa Barbara sea urchin, so luscious and tamed in the dashi broth
V: YUBA, SHIITAKE, MITSUBA, NORI SEAWEED, GRATED TORORO (MOUNTAIN YAM) WITH DASHI – superb
(NOT BOUND BY TRADITION, THE CHEF’S CHOICE DISH)
SPAGHETTINI WITH ABALONE, PICKLED COD ROE, TRUFFLES – excellent served each time we dined at n/naka
V: PURPLE YAM RAVIOLI, SAGE BUTTER, PARMESAN CHEESE – decadent, not measuring up to the spaghettini though
(MEAT replacement for vegetarians )
JAPAN MIYAZAKI WAGYU BEEF A5 , FOIE GRAS WITH HOUBA MISO – showed up each time we dined at n/naka
V: MOCHI WRAPPED WITH FRIED TOFU, MISO, SCALLION ON THE HOUBA LEAF – presented in the same fashion as the beef, this was a revelation I chewed through with a delectable grin
LOBSTER, TOMATO, CUCUMBER, YUZU CURD – so fresh!
V: STRAWBERRY ROSE, CUCUMBER, PASSION FRUIT AND TOMATO SAUCE – minimalist edible flower arrangement
SEASONAL FISH – four different pieces in two servings served raw on a rice bun
V: SEASONAL VEGETABLES – marinated matsutake, shiitake mushroom, cabbage, mountain yam, … the best veggie sushi ever.
To any of the modern kaiseki menus an extra hand roll (veggie possible) can be added.
The desserts were co-produced with Niki Nakayama’s former culinary teacher Chef Leslie Bilderback. To refresh your palate an apricot, melon, or as we had the last time a plum sorbet is scooped into a small cup. Then comes the main deal. An unusual ice cream flavour like genmaicha (popped corn green tea), popcorn, toasted milk is paired with some seasonal fruit typically, but also grains like amaranth or black rice. We tried these three, but the latest tart was by a slight margin my favourite.
ROSE ALMOND MILK GRANITA, POPCORN ICE CREAM, MALTED MERINGUE, LEMON DROP, CARAMEL ANISE, CHOCOLATE RAISIN
CHERRY PISTACHIO FINANCIER, GENMAICHA ICE CREAM, BLACK RICE CRACKER
APPLE AND POMEGRANATE TART, TOASTED MILK ICE CREAM, HUCKLE BERRY SAUCE, AMARANTH
A bowl of freshly whipped matcha tea with a granita seals the meal before the final sweet touch of house chocolate truffles tames any remaining cravings.
Wine or sake pairing is available with global wine offerings and a good sake breadth. As Japanese bottled beers became also popular in the West, the options broadened also at n/naka. We went for Kenzo Estate Sauvignon Blanc. The zesty freshness of this white wine from the Napa Valley accompanies the elegant, delicate cooking of Niki Nakayama. Moving to Sea Smoke Cellars Ten Pinot Noir, a blend of 10 clones from the Santa Rita Hills with the typical California fruit power, but there are also wonderful old world choices. German and Alsace Rieslings next to a bright Pinot Blanc would accompany most of the tasting menu wonderfully. The corkage fee is $35 per 750ml bottle not represented on the wine and sake list.
Contrary to the whatever you wear is cool in Los Angeles, at n/naka the dress code is business casual, so no beach boys with Hawaianas are allowed in. Recently, some guests arrived straight from the airport with their rolling suitcases parked in the rear. As one of them was rolling out of the restaurant, a wide smile on his face, apologetically he responded to our turning heads: “I did not want to miss this! I had to come dine here, whatever it took.” He seemed satisfied, and so were we, as always at n/naka.
n/naka 3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034
+1 310 836 6252
Valet parking is available behind the restaurant.
Two seatings between 5:30 and 6 pm; then 8:45 and 9:15pm, but the later usually involves hankering outside until the previous tables roll out of the restaurant.