n/naka is set off the main drag; on the corner of retail and residential. As a matter of fact, while we were going there, we weren’t sure if we had in fact arrived. Other than an address, it has no other identifying signs, no name…
and it looks pretty much like a nicely kept residential property
and to look around, it looks like a residential area…
Well, except for the Palm/Tarot Reader; So to be sure you have actually arrived at n/naka, be sure to look for their sign…that will tell you that you are at the right place!
But once you enter the doors, and sit down, there is no doubt that the experience will be anything “ordinary”…as a matter of fact, it is quite extraordinary.
Watch me first, or watch me second…
What is Kaiseki?
Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese Dinner. The term also refers to the collection of skills and techniques that allow the preparation of such meals. Born and raised in Los Angeles, chef Niki Nakayama began her career working at Takao restaurant in Brentwood under the guidance of chefs Takao Izumida and Morihiro Onadera. Wanting to expand her culinary skills, Niki embarked on a three-year working tour of Japan, sampling her way through the different regions, making note of the flavors and essentials of Japanese cuisine, both traditional and cutting-edge. These are the skills she uses at n/naka (a combination of her first and last name); and trust me, she learned them well.
Upon arrival, we are warmly greeted and shown to our table. We were told by others that to enjoy the true skills and experience, we should order the modern Kaiseki menu, 13 courses $165.00 pp. Seems like a lot, but we love the get the “full experience”. As I find many wine pairings to be uninspired and pretty ordinary … we know Jeffery Stivers, the Sommelier and Service Director, and his reputation with wine and sake, so we decide to go with the full experience and add the wine/sake pairings; an additional $85.00 pp. For a couple who routinely spend $180 for a night eating sushi and drinking some pretty ordinary sake, the price point wasn’t much of a stretch.
Our first course starts with French Sparkling Wine (see if it’s not from Champagne, France, even the French can’t call their sparklers “champagne”) a Domaine Bailly La Pierre, Cremant de Bougonge Brut Rose, Burgundy, France NV. What a delicious start…
but when they bring the first plate of food, oh la la. Each course has a name, and a definition of what is to be expected. The courses are all done with the freshest, localist ingredients that fit the chef’s vision. And her vision is far more than 20/20.
Course 1: Saki Zuke (a pairing of something common and something unique)
On a Bed of Julienned Crispy Bull’s Blood Beets sits Norwegian Smoked Salmon along with a side of Junsai (a perennial aquatic plant of the same family as the water lily), topped with a Flower of Violet that has the most delicate gold leaf painted on one of its perfect petals
And then a Puree of Roasted Nasu (Baby Japanese Eggplant) is poured over. OMG – what is that I just put into my mouth? It is sooooo delicious. I want more. But I have 12 more courses to go, so I will be patient.
Course 2: Zensai (main seasonal ingredient presented as an appetizer)
OK…Maine lobster tail is always available, but these were so beautifully tiny, and sweet. It is presented on a beautiful plate along with a sauce of Famal (I can’t tell you what that is, but I can tell you it was good), topped with a Chip of Bull’s Blood Beet; Tasmanian Sea Trout on a sweep of green asparagus butter, roasted heirloom cherry tomatoes, and a green asparagus spear; then there is a beautiful cucumber roll, stuffed with Maryland Blue Crab with Unagi and Hass avocado; and Goma Dofu (sesame and green tea tofu) that is topped with Fresh Uni from Santa Barbara and Kombu Dashi…All of this on one plate? And each was so unique.
This dish is served with a Verdejo, Martinsancho, Rueda, Spain 2010 – perfect match! So far wine pairings are 2 for 2.
Course 3: Modern Zakuri (a modern interpretation of sashimi)
A Tartare of O-toro of Spanish Baby Blue Fin Tuna is mixed with a fine dice of white scallions, then topped with American White Sturgeon Caviar, Uni butter, soy reduction, chives and kombu dash. I suppose you could pick at that and eat it bit by bit, and it would be good, but if you stir it up…Oh my my my…and another my … just because.
Jeffery pairs this up with a Pinot Blanc, Dopff and Irion, Alsace, France 2008. 3 for 3.
Course 4: Owanmono (still water)
Inside a delicious broth of Morotaro tomato, fennel root, floats a mousselin of Maine lobster with fennel root and chive. It looks so simple and tastes so divine!
Paired with Roero Ameis, Giovanni Almondo “Bricco del Cilegie”, Piedmont, Italy 2011 … 4 for 4.
Course 5: Otsukuri (Sashimi)
When this dish arrives, there are 5 different elements on it; I tell my husband, I’ll bet this is going to count for 5 of the 13.
I’m wrong, it is one dish.
One plate of sashimi deliciousness. It has on it… Seared Toro of Big Eyed Tuna, a Kumomoto Oyster with Ponzu, Live Hirame (Halibut – but don’t worry, it wasn’t alive anymore, I did not eat a flopping around fish, only a piece of one that had been flopping around just a few minutes ago) from Jeju, Korea, Kanpachi (Amberjack Tuna), Tai (Japanese Snapper) and served with freshly grated REAL wasabi, Ponzu and Niki’s special soy sauce.
As I said, I go out for sushi a lot, and I’ve had some pretty darn good sashimi; but, well, not buts about it, hands down the best I’ve ever eaten. This plate comes with our first sake pairing; Sake Junmai Ginjo, “Shichida” Tenzen Brewery, Saga, Japan. Now THAT’S Sake! 5 for 5.
When we arrived, we brought with us a bottle of Chateau Montelena’s 1994 Chardonnay. You know, Chateau Montelena, the one with the famous bottle that beat the French at the Judgement of Paris? We asked Jeffery to open it and pair it with whichever course he thought it would go best…he chose this one. I think he chose well.
Course 6: Agemono (a fried dish)
Along with a beautiful table side cooking and presentation, (which you can or did see in the video I do hope you watch my video, I work hard to make them entertaining) came an innovative and delicious meal. As I was filming this for my video, I was afraid that I was taking too much time capturing it, but it turned out perfectly.
Fried Pompano along with the Crispy bones with multi-colored peppers, scallions and a sauce of sweet and sour dashi. You wrap this up in a butter leaf and eat it.
I’ll be honest, I thought eating the bones would be weird, but they were really only rather textural and added a little crunch.
The wine that Jeffery pairs with this is a Trebbian d’Abruzzo, Itaolo Pietrananj, Abruzzo, Italy 2010 and of course our Chardonnay. Hey, that 1994 is drinking damn well! It was hard to decide which went better, they both are lovely wines, but on principal, I’m choosing the Montelena. I mean, really, a 1994 Chardonnay? (and the fact that I’m married to one of their “road warriors) …But that Trebbian d’Abruzzo is damn good too…so still giving Jeffery 6 for 6.
Course 7: Yakimono (a grilled dish)
Hotate Yaki. I’m a big lover of scallop, raw scallop. This is lightly grilled live Diver scallops from Boston; grilled in its own shell with the roasted liver, a Shiso leaf, Shiitake mushroom, Yuzu zest and Dashi. Now I’m spoiled rotten. Can I ever replicate this? Anywhere?
Served with Picpoul de Pinet, Domaine de Laurier, Languedoc, France 2010 7 for 7 – are you getting an idea that the wine pairings are worth it?
Course 8: Shiizakana (the chef’s choice, not bound by tradition)
Not a lot of spaghetti in Japan, but chef Niki finds a perfect way to blend it into Japanese cuisine. Spaghetti with Black Abalone from Monterey, pickeld Cod roe, shaved Italian summer truffles, garlic, soy and topped with Daikon radish sprouts. Best pasta EVER!
Paired with Greco di Tufo, Villa Mathilde, Campania, Italy 2010 – do I need to say it? 8 for 8.
Course 9: Niku (a meat course)
About this time, I realize that the 5 parts of course 5 were not 5 different courses. And I’m thinking, I’m getting about full, not sure I can do 4 more. But then, I don’t have to eat it all, right? I can just take a taste of it and stop. I can stop at any time. So…they bring…
All natural Angus rib-cap steak, served on top of a mash of russet potato and leeks, Nanohana (broccoli rabe), carrots and a ponzu demi-jus.
So of course, I eat it all.
This was served with our only red for the night, a Pinot Noir, Ampelos Cellars “Fiddlestix Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills, CA 2008, and Fiddlestixs it was good! 9 for 9
At this point, I’m wondering how I can possible eat more…or yeah, don’t have to finish it.
Course 10: Sunomono (a salad)
Finished before I even get a picture. Yes, it is that good. And yet, somehow, it cleanses the palette. And in doing so, I don’t feel so full any more. I’m ready for more.
Oh, do you want to know what it was? Maine Lobster sliced on top of thinly sliced baby cucumber with a puree of Hass avocado and Sweet 100 Heirloom cherry tomatoes (from Niki’s garden) with ponzu. Served with our second sake of the night, Yuzu Sake, Yuzo Omoi, Yamamoto, Japan. They do know how to make some fine sake’s in Japan. Going with 10 for 10
Course 11: Shokuji One & Two (a rice dish – sushi)
OK…first of all, the title is deceiving…it wasn’t one and two, it was one, two, three, with 2 pieces of the best sushi I have ever had in my entire life. Full, not on your life! I didn’t even get a picture of one of the plates but let me tell you, there is something so special about this sushi, I can’t even tell you what it is. It’s like a metaphysical experience (no exaggeration). I went to see the movie, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and if he is any better than what I had here…I would NEVER be able to eat sushi again. As it is, I had to wait almost a month before I could go back to even my favorite sushi bar here. And my #1 son (that’s the first born, not necessarily the best, and not necessarily not) told me THAT was the best sushi he’d ever had when he came up to visit. So you have to understand, this sushi is phenomenal. I’ll tell you all three, even if I only have photos of two…
First plate (in my tummy before photo) – Tai (Japanese Snapper) and Chu-Toro of Big-eyed tuna. What the heck does she do to her rice? Oh, my goodness.
Second plate: Aji Fish (Spanish Mackerel) and Amaebi (sweet raw shrimp)
Third plate: Big Shell Clam and Fresh Uni from Santa Barbara …
Paired with our third unique sake: Sake Yamahai Karakuchi, “Shichida” Tenzen Brewery, Saga Japan. 11 for 11.
Course 12: Noodles
Soman Noodles served with freshly grated ginger and Kombu dashi. To settle everything down and get us ready for the grand finale – dessert! (no wine is paired with this as this is considered an “intermezzo”
And sad to say, it’s time for dessert…but what a dessert…
Course 13: Dessert
A Cheesecake of Kobocha squash with graham cracker crumbles, a sauce of dark caramel, freshly whipped cream (what did you expect, it would come out of a can?) served organic fresh blueberries, raspberries, and Kiwi, and not to be missed, a Creme Brûlée of Sesame Seed. Now, who would have thunk that up? Nike Nakayama…that’s who.
And to pair with: Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Delas, Rhone Valley, France 2010. Another Home Run…
It seems like a lot of food. But really, it is perfectly done and Niki does not use a lot of oil, butter or other high-fat ingredients. I actually didn’t gain a pound from eating this…and suffered no ill effects trying to sleep that night (our dinner started after an event we attended, so we didn’t start until 8:30 and weren’t done until after midnight). And unlike our over $1000.00 dinner at Alinea, there was no search for a hamburger after.
LindySez: What I loved about this is its uniqueness. Chef Niki Nakayama presents some of the most beautiful food, with the best ingredients, treated with care and finesse. Nothing is overdone. It is just done, perfectly done. As she comes out to greet each diner after their meal, she deserves all the accolades she is getting. And as I stated before, Sommelier Jeffery Stivers puts together a killer food and wine pairing…again, unique, wines and sake that stand up to the food, without overpowering it. Enhancing each other. And isn’t that the best dance for food and wine? I think so.
I may not be hanging up my chopsticks, but I’m going to be much more particular about where I stick them… (no, really don’t stick them, that’s considered impolite)
I just looked at their new menu as I was writing this…and I want to go back. Now. Please?
n/naka 3455 S. Overland Avenue Los Angeles, CA 310 836 6252
All photos were shot, without flash on my iPhone 4s and the Camera + (tap tap) app