Restaurants & Bars

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

J.L. | Aug 13, 201103:15 AM     24

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!

3455 S. Overland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90034

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

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

7160 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA

3300 Overland Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90034

Scoops Westside
10640 Woodbine St, Los Angeles, CA 90034

3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034

Want to stay up to date with this post? Sign Up Now ›

More from Chowhound

Top 10 Tools for the Minimalist Kitchen

Top 10 Tools for the Minimalist Kitchen

by Melissa Coleman | Welcome to Cookware Week! We're sharing our favorite cookware sets, accessories, and kitchen appliances...

The 8 Best Cookware Sets of 2019

The 8 Best Cookware Sets of 2019

by Camryn Rabideau | Welcome to Cookware Week! We're sharing our favorite cookware sets, accessories, and kitchen appliances...

The 10 Best Direct-to-Consumer Cookware Brands of 2019

The 10 Best Direct-to-Consumer Cookware Brands of 2019

by Camryn Rabideau | Welcome to Cookware Week! We're sharing our favorite cookware sets, accessories, and kitchen appliances...

8 Egregious Cookware Sins You Don't Realize You're Committing

8 Egregious Cookware Sins You Don't Realize You're Committing

by Camryn Rabideau | Welcome to Cookware Week! We're sharing our favorite cookware sets, accessories, and kitchen appliances...

Get fresh food news delivered to your inbox

Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest tips, tricks, recipes and more, sent twice a week.