1/15/2016 Friday 5:50PM – Dinner
3455 S. Overland Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90034
Like so many others, we heard about n/naka through Chef’s Table, the Netflix food documentary series. If you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading right now and go watch it. Of all of the restaurants they profiled, this was the closest to us, so we vowed to drop by. Unfortunately, the price ($185/person for thirteen courses) and the popularity meant it’s not a place you can just walk into. We try to limit our huge food expenses to birthdays and anniversaries (because what’s to stop us from depleting our bank accounts otherwise?) and so about a month before our three year anniversary, we called up n/naka. The earliest spot they had for two was three months out. What can you do? All of that publicity must have done wonders for business. We took it.
n/naka doesn’t look like much on the outside. It’s a roundish gray stone building surrounded by some fixtures you’d find out of a Japanese garden, but even with the irregular shape it doesn’t catch your eye. That’s because, at night, the windows don’t spill light from the restaurant out into the street. The inside is a different story, all whites and neutrals. If Frank Lloyd Wright had been Japanese, I imagine he would have come up with something like this.
Our table was ready for us when we arrived. Each place was set with a black wooden tray and a pair of balsa chopsticks in their holder. A smaller tray with black pebbles sat in the middle – a miniature rock garden. Our hostess, a Japanese woman in a sleek gray suit, pulled out chairs for each of us in turn, shook out the folded cloth napkins, and placed them in our laps. Over the course of the meal, whenever one of us got up to use the restroom, she would materialize and refold our napkins.
“Anything to drink?” she asks. As it is $80 extra for wine pairings with the courses, we ask for waters, please, and decline the wine. Besides, it would be a pity to dull the senses tonight! There was no menu (we asked for a copy at the end of the night so we could fact check) so we weren’t sure what to expect, but we knew that we didn’t want to miss any of it.
First Course: Saki Zuke
(A pairing of something common and something unique)
The first course arrives with instructions. Take the tiny spoon of sturgeon caviar and use it to mix the contents of the conch shell (a seaweed soup with conch meat and potato puree), and eat. The head of the spoon disappears and then emerges from the foam without disturbing the shape of it, and fills your mouth with savory, potato-flavored air.
Have you ever had cotton shaved ice? The kind where there are no discernible pieces of ice at all? It’s like that, but less wet.
Eventually you discover that there is actually soup at the bottom of that shell, and that it is delicious. Once in awhile, a little bubble of ocean – a sturgeon roe – pops on the tongue. And the chewy pieces of conch surprise you with their solidity and remind you that you are indeed eating food.
Second Course: Zensai
(Seasonal ingredients presented as an appetizer)
The shrimp is smoky with the char of the grill, earthy, musky and tender. They’ve put some kind of citrus on this, and when dipped in the almost cheesy orange sauce (was this made from the head of the shrimp?), the taste is indescribable. You open the little paper package to find halibut steamed with mushrooms. It is is the mildest thing, and the most substantial. Please enjoy it dipped into the orange sauce, a passing waiter tells you. You do, and you find that the sauce imbues the flaky fish with depth. The little black dish is monkfish liver, milder in flavor than bird or pork liver, and not as buttery as a foie gras. The chives provide a little spicy note. Lobster and crab jelly with lobster meat and cauliflower purée sits on the bamboo basket, cold and delicate and sweet with the flavor of the lobster. It’s softer than any gelatin, and has more the texture of homemade bone broth that has been sitting in the fridge long enough for the collagen to solidify. It’s hard to pick up with chopsticks; in the end, you just pick up the dish and slurp.
That was one course? A woman at the corner table asks. I thought that was five!
By now, all of your expectations have been knocked out of the water. What could possibly be next?
Third Course: Modern Zukuri
(Modern interpretation of sashimi)
The yellow dots are yuzu (an extremely aromatic Japanese citrus) curd, sweet and creamy and tart. The avocado sauce is smooth and more umami than expected, like a smooth guacamole and sea foam had a baby. The greens and the radish are crisp and peppery. The scallops are sweet and buttery and only solid in the most technical sense. Dipped in the yuzu, avocado, and soy sauces, you get something sweet and salty, and fleeting like a dream.
Fourth Course: Owan “Still Water”
Please open the bowl and enjoy the fragrance of the kombu, your waitress says.
The savory aroma hits your nose with a whump when you open the bowl, and then fades almost immediately. A prelude to the taste. It’s salty and umami and almost tart on the tongue, and herbally sweet permeating through the back of the mouth, kind of like rooibos. The fish is firm and its flavor pales in comparison to the broth. The daikon is cooked but, unlike most pressure cooked radish, still firm and juicy. The buckwheat noodle is also sweet, but it’s the sweetness of grain and not the saccharine of sugar, and leaves you feeling refreshed.
Fifth Course: Otsukuri
The oyster is mild and soft, like popping a bubble filled with the ocean. They’ve added a ponzu sauce that complements it so well you don’t even realize there are two elements to the dish. And then it’s on to the fish. Halibut, octopus, and two cuts of tuna (we think, we couldn’t quite make out what our waitress said under her Japanese accent). The quality of the fish is amazing, each full of flavor and distinctly unique. The red pieces of tuna especially feel as if they have been tenderized. They barely hold their shape on the plate. Inside the mouth, the pieces fall apart at first contact with the tongue. The wasabi is freshly grated, and if you’ve only had the darker green “wasabi” paste (actually colored horseradish) before, this will surprise you. The spice pinches the tip of the tongue, not the nose, and is very refreshing.
Sixth Course: Yakimono
Unagi Freshwater Eel, Sauteed Foie Gras, Shiitake Mushroom with Balsamic Soy Sauce and Strawberry
This dish is amazing. It has everything. Sweet and sour from the strawberry and balsamic, salty and umami from the fish and the mushroom. Bitter from the char on the foie gras. The liver is both solid and liquid, like lava cake. Tender and rich and tart. Two classic pairings have seamlessly been merged onto one plate – strawberry and balsamic, shiitake and soy. It feels like it shouldn’t work but it does. Beautifully. The eel just falls apart in the mouth yet retains its flaky texture. The mushroom, the berry and the liver are all juicy – one with soup, one with acid, the other with pure fat. The sauce is sweet and salty and delicious with everything.
Sean: SMELLS SO GOOD. The smell of foie gras combined with the smell of strawberry really works! THE LAYERS OF TEXTURE. THE FOIE GRAS ON TOP OF THE EEL ON TOP OF THE SHIITAKE ON TOP OF THE STRAWBERRY. JUST IMAGINE IT. I CAN’T EVEN. AND THE BALSAMIC SOY SAUCE IS VISCOUS AND SMOKY.
Seventh Course: Agemono
Submerged in a broth composed of conch brine and beets, the cod comes apart in succulent layers. The broth has infused into the napa cabbage (bok choy) slices beneath the fish and filled them with flavor. Atop the fish sits bits of fried crunchy rice paper and an eggplant puree that tastes so much like uni that only its color convinces you that it’s not actually seafood. The skin on the cod comes off and melts into the broth, which is almost as savory as the earlier dashi broth, but has a much more complex flavor and texture due to the rice paper and sweet beets.
Eighth Course: Shiizakana
(Not bound by tradition, the chef’s choice dish)
Perfectly al dente noodles, chewy abalone, peppery daikon sprouts, slices of black truffle thinner than paper, all married together by the small grains of pickled cod roe that you initially believe to be Parmesan. The first bite, you are so happy. The second bite, you are so sad. You are halfway through the tiny plate of pasta. You nibble on a piece of abalone, trying to make it last. You pick up the tiny leaves of daikon. You wish it would go on forever. But then you give in to temptation and the pasta is gone and your mouth is filled with the flavor of truffle and the best texture of noodles you have ever experienced. You wonder what it is about the water at home that spaghetti is either overcooked or undercooked. You discuss the texture of the pasta with the next table over. You discover that there are still fish eggs between your teeth and that they carry the flavor of the truffles. It must be a dream. By golly, the next course can’t possibly surpass what you have just eaten, right?
Ninth Course: Niku
Wagyu. Carrot. Cauliflower. Brussel sprout. Beet chip. Kabucha puree. Wasabi aioli. You have fallen into the expectation that steaks ought to be rare. However, this tiny piece of steak of the highest quality – Miyazaki Wagyu Beef A5 – is at least medium. When you bite into it, juices ooze from within and permeate everything. The sweetness of the carrot, the beet, even the brussel sprout, and the tiny kick in the aioli bring it all together. The kabucha (Japanese pumpkin) puree is so creamy and sweet, it’s almost like ice cream.
Once you have recovered from the delight that is the food, you begin to look around, listen into others’ conversations, and you see your delighted expressions mirrored all around you. The middle aged woman with the beautiful drop earrings two tables away uses her fingers to mop off the last of the sauce from her plate and looks at you, sheepishly. When you catch someone’s eye, they grin at you. We are all happily experiencing the same sweet dream, a dream created by Niki, n/naka’s chef de cuisine.
How many courses do we have left? someone asks. Thirteen total, a man at the next table replies. I was done after three, she says. But we’re not gonna say no to more, her dinner partner remarks.
Tenth Course: Sunomono
Seared tuna with miso vinaigrette, cucumber, flower petal, tiny cherry tomato, and yuzu sake. The lightest course so far; it’s crunchy and cold and refreshing. A moment of calm meditation amidst a blistering sea of flavors. The yuzu sake tastes almost like juice, a little bitter from the citrus rind and sweet as well.
Mengsha: Best sake I’ve ever had 😀
Eleventh Course: Shokuji/Sushi
Seasonal Fish; Miso Soup
The empty salad bowl is whisked away, and then one after another, the plates of sushi come. The pieces are small, and you are grateful. You are embarrassed to admit it, but you are getting full. This is course eleven though, and the end is in sight. And looking at the fish, each with an unorthodox addition to catch your attention, how can you resist? The first tray has a smooth red snapper with yuzu and a buttery bluefin toro with sea salt. Really? Toro with sea salt? You’d think your taste buds would explode. And yet somehow they don’t, it isn’t too much. A mild and sweet piece of pickled ginger cleanses your palate of the last of the toro flavor, and then you are ready for more.
The next tray appears. Mackerel with ginger and bonito with chives. Both of these are meaty fish with assertive flavors. You have just barely put the last piece in your mouth when the waitress brings out another tray. Slippery squid with a shiso leaf and a classic piece of uni (sea urchin). Miso soup follows. The miso has gathered itself into a ball, and hides surprises from your eyes. Beneath the clouds of miso, tofu skin and sweet translucent onions await.
Twelfth Course: Dessert Appetizer
This is the moment you’ve been waiting for – dessert! Or is it? Your waitress introduces the course as a “dessert appetizer.” There’s a shot glass full of green apple sorbet sitting on a pomegranate sauce, and a large wooden bowl of matcha. The sorbet is light and mild in both sweetness and tartness. It’s a palate cleanser. The matcha is the opposite. It’s a sucker punch. After your experience with matcha lattes and green tea ice cream, you would never have guessed that matcha can be so ferocious. It’s fragrant and so bitter your mouth puckers. You pick up the bowl with both hands and and sip it, and then you eat some sorbet, and then you’ve recovered enough to drink more of the tea. By the time you’ve finished the sorbet, half a bowl of tea is still left staring at you. By this point, you’ve put your life in the hands of Niki and her team. You try to grin, it comes out more as a grimace from the bitterness, and you finish your tea.
Thirteenth Course: Dessert
Finally, the last course. You’ve been sitting at this table for almost three hours, but still you look up expectantly as the plate descends to the table. It is beautiful. Chocolate cake, mint chocolate cookie, orange granita and orange ice cream, your waitress says. They are underselling. There is also candied orange, a white meringue-like cookie, and a chocolate scribble.
The chocolate “cake” is more like a smooth fudge, so dark and chocolatey it’s savory. The candied orange is a revelation. It’s soft and incredibly sweet. The essential oils in the zest fills your mouth with minty citrusy fragrance. The meringue is crisp and slightly sticky when you bite into it, and minty. The tartness and coldness of the ice cream and the granita mixed with the mint of the cookie crumbles cut through the sweetness of the chocolate so that even though you have been tasting wonder after wonder all night, you don’t find your taste buds exhausted. You’re tired, but you don’t regret a moment of it. You are not stuffed. You are simply finished.
The waitress sets a cup of tea before you as she leaves with your empty dessert plate. This is a tea you’re more used to – Hojicha, perhaps. It’s hot and comforting. After all that food, you’re content to just sit there and take in your surroundings. The people around you are starting to wrap up as well. And then the master behind everything you’ve experienced this evening appears – Niki herself. She greets each table as they get ready to pay. When it comes to your turn, you bow and thank her the Japanese way and can’t help asking for a picture with her. This will be a night to look back on for sure.
As your waitress hands you the check, she leaves one last surprise on your table – an espresso chocolate truffle for each of you.
5 out of 5 stars