Special occasions call for special meals. Nothing could be more enjoyable than the subtle flavors of Japanese cuisine. After meeting chef Niki Nakayama at the rising stars gala and sampling her dish, I knew we had to find time to visit her restaurant in Culver City. For C's birthday, we arranged for dinner at n/naka. Located in an inconspicuous building near the corner of Palms and Overland, n/naka has no signage or visible identifier aside from the building number.
Upon entering you'll notice a large beverage case holding volumes of wine and sake. We opted to bring our own bottle of sake for the $35 corkage. The restaurant requests that you not bring any bottles which they already carry in-house. The place was cozy inside and had about seven or eight tables arranged and a dining counter.
The restaurant offers two dinner options the traditional kaiseki dinner or a vegetarian option. The concept of kaiseki dinners is centered around traditional multi-course Japanese dinners where a set menu of select foods is served on individual trays to each diner. Chef Nakayama presents not only traditional japanese cuisine but also innovative modern presentations. You can tell she takes great pride in her ingredients as we found much of the menu to be shipped directly from Japan or picked from her own garden.
Our waiter came by with the first course and so started our tastebud adventure. Our server provided instruction on how to enjoy each course. Reminiscent of my experience at Totokau. (It's almost time for another visit there too btw!)
Blue crab veggei blossom; dashi and vinegar jelly; curry sorbet
Lobster Shumai with spicy ponzu; Ankimo (monkfish liver) with shitaki mushroom; Big eye tuna with fried seaweed and an avocado sauce; Halibut ceviche
Seared albacore with a tuna sauce, maui onions, cucumbers and tomatoes from the chef's garden
Snow crab corn dobin ("teapot") mushi ("steamed")
If you couldnt guess, dobin mushi is a traditional Japanese seafood broth served in a teapot. You sip on the soup and open it up for goodies once you're done. This soup had large chunks of snow crab. The combination of corn and snow crab actually works very well together. The flavors reminded me of a light and clean corn chowder.
Seabass; Kumamoto oysters with Santa Barbara uni, Octopus on top sliced daikon; Kanpachi and cucumber; Tuna toro with wasabi from Japan
This platter was served alongside two types of soy sauce. A lighter version for all of the fish with the exception of the toro to be eaten with the more robust soy sauce. The intent is to cut some of the more fatty flavors of the toro. The oyster was perfectly shucked and very clean as you would expect. This bite of oyster and uni alone will have you coming back.
Scallops from Hokkaido, smoked salmon roe, creme fraiche, bacon bits on top of bacon powder
Branzino with maui onion, shitake mushroom, and bell pepper soup
Mentaiko pasta with burgundy truffles
This was one of the most flavorful dishes of the night and one of my favorites. Mentaiko is marinated roe of either cod or pollock (in this case cod) used in Japanese cuisine. Before you dig in, the waiter recommends you enjoy the scent of the truffles. Rich and creamy served with fresh al dente noodles. Can I have another serving please?
Waygu from Japan with chef's garden vegetables - beets, brussels sprouts, turnip, Japanese eggplant, shishito pepper, rose leaf, and carrot, served with wasabi sauce and sea salt
Prawn with sturgeon caviar and avocado; Yuzu and miso sauce served with Yuzu juice
Nigiri course: Red snapper, blue fin tuna toro, spanish mackerel, amaebi (sweet shrimp), kanpachi, uni (sea urchin)
Pre-seasoned with soy sauce and wasabi, these bites were enjoyed without modification.
Soba noodes with tempura flakes
Black sesame creme brulee, seasonal fruit, passion fruit on top of vanilla bean ice cream and matcha green tea
Much like most traditional Japanese meals, we finished with some tea. The waiter brought us some chilled roasted barley tea (mugicha). At the end of our meal Chef Nakayama came out and chatted with us for a bit. It was a pleasant surprise that she remembered us from the gala and my blog post covering it. She sent over a nice spicy and sweet sake to finish our meal and triple checked that we thoroughly enjoyed everything and were full.
In my opinion, the level of service you receive at the restaurant is on par with many Michelin rated spots. The wait staff was very attentive and ensured that the pacing which food was served was appropriate. Throughout the night we never found our glasses empty. When we asked for more information about each dish, our waiter was able to provide in depth knowledge about food preparation. During our dinner we noticed that the table next to us had a slightly different menu. Upon inquiry, we were told that the restaurant tracks how often you attend and will tailor the kaiseki menu upon your subsequent visits so that you get the opportunity to try something new and exciting each time you dine with them.
I dare say that it's only a matter of time before this rising star is awarded some Michelin stars of her own.