y4pcT1JaIwGptQJPO6l_mZmgv34 tiffin unboxed: January 2013

An Enchanting Modern Kaiseki Tasting Dinner at n/naka

It's been a longtime dream of mine to enjoy a formal  meal in Tokyo, or actually anywhere in Japan. Unfortunately the last time I've been there was with my parents when I was 3 years old. Needless to say I don't remember the food.

This past December, an incredible opportunity presented itself to utilize some of the etiquette I learned and wrote about in my Japanese kaiseki etiquette workshop post at an exquisite kaiseki experience at n/naka, the only dedicated kaiseki restaurant in L.A.

The name is an abbreviation of Chef Niki Nakayama's name.

This kaiseki culinary practice of many small courses is meant to capture the seasonality in a balanced manner. And this meal, both the cuisine and the overall experience, will remain in my memory as one of the finest dining experiences and a feast for all senses.

Arriving at n/naka, in a street I'd driven through several times, I'd have never thought the sign-less building was a restaurant. I walked past a neon palm reader sign just before arriving. The Japanese style landscaping out front gave me the only clue I found the spot.

Reservations are mandatory, and after stepping in I realized they get fully prepared to give you the best personal experience, neglecting no details in the thoughtful service and flow of the meal.

For example, we were contacted in advance o fthe meal to determine any food restrictions of any of the diners. Meals are served at a leisurely pace, lasting 3-4 hours on average.

Yuzu Sake, Yuzu Omoi, Yamamoto, Japan
General Manager and Sommelier Jeffery Stivers suggests appropriate drink pairings, or the diner may select a course by course pairing option. He also speaks Japanese and answers most any question about the courses and ingredients. Needless to say, he exhibited perfect etiquette, as we learned in our kaiseki etiquette workshop.

He described this yuzu infused sake as a "Japanese margarita" and I really appreciated how clear that description was and how approachable his explanations were for someone who doesn't know much about sake. This refreshing drink was a big hit with the whole table.

The minimalist and elegant dining room immediately washed away the stressful rain and rush hour traffic. The table centerpiece of pebbles and a larger river stone along with the very low volume in the dining room soothed me immediately.

The n/naka website describes that the meal is Chef Niki's interpretation of kaiseki, both modern and traditional. The menus, which are a bit of a splurge, consist of 9 course chef's tasting menu or 13 course modern kaiseki menu as well as a 10 course vegetarian tasting menu option.

Having said it's a splurge, I was delighted that the tasting meal contained delicacies that sometimes count as supplemental extras in many tasting meals - caviar, lobster, uni, abalone, Wagyu beef, exquisite quality sushi and sashimi (Otoro), prized Nameko mushrooms and of course the liberal use of Italian white truffles.

The exquisite vegetables served come from their own organic gardens.Many of the vegetables were the finest example of their kind, the food highlighted in its natural and unique forms. The vegetarian tasting menu delivers fried mochi cutlet, vegetable sushi and other options which are anything but boring.

The n/naka site listed the key winter 2012 ingredients, including mushrooms (including the truffles), persimmons, purple yams, Brussels sprouts - all at their peak of the season. These ingredients were incorporated beautifully into the courses.

From the first bite of an utterly perfect oyster course to the last sip of tea, every single sense was engaged. The heady scent of Italian white truffles permeated the dining room, intoxicating me during most of the evening. The sight (plating), feel (textures) and sizzles in the quiet dining room pleased me in addition to the sublime flavors of each course.

A fellow diner told me he'd look over to me when they set down each course in front of me because I'd smile from ear to ear and look so excited. I was feeling it. My excitement reached levels of giddiness when they laid the truffle dome and shaver right next to me!

My intention was to write a series of posts about this epic meal. However, as their stated philosophy says on the website, the whole of the meal is more important than the sum of its parts.

The experience reminded me in some ways of the beautiful flow of another of my favorite meals at the Providence chef's table, on this post.

Although it will be long, I'd like to attempt to mimic the harmonious flow of the meal.

In addition to my personal experience, what impressed me was the fact that nobody has the same experience twice at n/naka. For our table alone we enjoyed 3 different menus. Even those having the same menu or duplicate courses had plating variations. They also kept the 9 course and 13 course meals at the same pace so we could all stay on track.

They do not begin the service until all members of the party are present, which is necessary for the kitchen's timing as well as conducting the symphony of this meal. The logistical success alone, even leaving the food, really impressed me since I have some operational background in my career. I appreciated how intricate service was presented.

I'd like to sprinkle in some photos of other diner's courses. I didn't have much focus on everything, but certain ingredients and presentations definitely caught my eye. I photographed a few beautiful plates from across the table, in order to not disrupt the flow of the other diners' meals.

Following is the menu describing all components, with key elements highlighted in bold. A couple of the other menus' dishes follow as well.


n/naka Modern Kaiseki Menu - 12/14/12

1. Saki Zuke (A pairing of something common and something unique)

Fanny Bay oyster that has been butter poached
wrapped in a nest of crispy Maui onions
topped with fresh uni from Santa Barbara
a leaf of cress and a violet flower from Chef Niki’s gardens
sitting on a sauce of a spicy russet potato Dashi 
and a gelee of Sanbaizu (a combination of Mirin and Dashi)

2. Zensai (Main seasonal ingredient presented as an appetizer)

Olive oil poached hirame (Alaskan halibut) 
served alongside a tempura of fresh Maitake mushroom
along with a cream of Maitake mushroom

fresh lemon, a leaf of cress and cylinder of purple yam 
and a sweep of a cream of purple yam

Lobster shumai – a Japanese dumpling of Maine lobster
along with the tail of Maine lobster
with a sweep of soy reduction

Norwegian smoked salmon 
that is wrapped around bruleed Black Mission Fig
cream cheese, asparagus, chives
served with a Ponzu reduction

Unagi Nameko Oroshi - roasted unagi (freshwater eel) 
with Nameko mushrooms from Japan
and finely grated vinegared daikon radish

Other menu plates for this course:

diver scallop, pompano, eel, smoked salmon
butter fish
3. Modern Zakuri (A modern interpretation of sashimi)

Tartare of Otoro of big-eyed tuna
mixed with a touch of white scallions
and topped with caviar of American white sturgeon
uni butter, a drop of soy reduction
fresh chive and Kombu Dashi

Other menu plates for this course:

Hokkaido Diver Scallops with Ponzu squeeze tube
giant clam cucumber daikon yuzu zest Ponzu pansy petals
Roasted Bull's Blood Beets, Nasu (Japanese eggplant), cherry tomatoes, parmesan, Ponzu hazelnut vinaigrette
4. Owanmono (Still water)

Hirame Kabu Shiitake Souphirame (live flounder from Jeju, Korea)
and shiitake mushroom and Kabu (Japanese turnip) and vegetables
in a broth of shiitake, vegetables and dashi
topped with the zest of fresh yuzu

5. Otsukuri (Modern Sashimi)

The sashimi was served with a special blend of Chef Niki's special soy sauce, lighter and suitable for highlighting the freshness and delicate flavors of the fresh fish.

Kumomoto oyster with Ponzu
Live hirame (halibut) from Jeju, Korea
Toro of hamachi (Yellowtail tuna)
Shima Aji (Striped Jack)
Seared toro of baby big-eyed tuna
served with freshly grated wasabi
Ponzu and Niki’s special soy sauce

The menu which we were sent via email after the dinner, makes it difficult for me to identify the components to the photos. My sparse notes indicated live hotate (scallop), Amberjack, trout. The toro was seared, the first time I've tasted that preparation.

Cucumber cone - from Niki's garden
sashimi inside Celebrity Apple

Other menu plates for this course:

6. Mushmono (Steamed dish)

Uni chawanmushi – A traditional Japanese egg custard
with shiitake mushrooms
fresh uni from Santa Barbara 
topped with a truffle Dashi 
and with shaved Italian truffles

Other menu plates for this course:

Kani Kouramushi - Snow Crab meat, truffled crab Dashi
Organic Jidori chicken egg, dashi, shaved white Italian truffles
head of Snow Crab

7. Yakimono (Grilled dish)


Yaki Razor Clams – fresh grilled razor clams cooked in their own shell
and then put over a ragu of Russet potato
Brussels sprouts and Shimeji mushrooms 
and fresh lemon

I appreciated this creative combination, and eating the clams from the shell. However, this is the first time I've tried cooked razor clams and I slightly prefer sashimi, tartar or ceviche - a raw preparation for razor clams.

Other menu plates for this course:

tempura of persimmon and Butterfish among other tastes
cauliflower tempura sweet peppers scallions sweet and sour Dashi

8. Shiizakana (Not bound by tradition, the Chef’s choice dish)

Spaghettini with black abalone from Monterey
pickled cod roe
shaved Italian summer truffles
garlic, soy 
and topped with daikon radish sprouts

This was my favorite course, and also that of one of our servers. A pasta dish being our favorite among such luxurious ingredients speaks to the way the seemingly simple dishes spoke volumes.

Of course this already delicious dish was further enhanced by the irresistible shaved truffles. The vegetarian menu swapped the roe and abalone for daikon radish sprouts, garlic and soy sauce and kept the shaved truffles.

9. Niku (Meat Course)

Ishiyaki – On a hot rock Japanese Matsuzaka Wagyu rib-eye 
along with a sautéed Shishito pepper 
with a sauce of garlic, ginger, sesame Tare

Other menu plates for this course:

Angus ribeye steak on a magnolia leaf scallions sweet red miso sauce

Masuzaka Wagyu ribeye steak pan-seared Okinawan finishing salt cracked pepper Russet and purple carrot mashed
10. Sunomono (Salad)

Marinated Miragai (giant clam)
with thinly sliced baby cucumber 
and a Golden Sunset cherry tomato, both from Niki’s garden

paired with Yuzu Sake, Yuzu Omoi, Yamamoto, Japan

11. Shokuji One & Two (Rice dish – Sushi)

Next the gari (pickled ginger) came out on the table, signaling the sushi course. I cannot say anything here that would do justice to the melt-in-your-mouth sushi.

Tai (Japanese snapper)
O-toro of big-eyed tuna

Wild Aji (Spanish Mackerel)
Amaebi (Sweet shrimp)

Miragai (Giant clam)
Fresh Uni (Sea urchin)

12. Soba Noodles 

served hot with Soba broth and tempura skin

When I lived and worked in the Westside I remember eating soba (buckwheat noodles) and udon at Taiko Japanese Restaurant, where I found out Chef Niki was the chef at some point.

The noodles and broth were simply perfect and I greatly enjoyed the added crunch of the tempura bits.

13. Mizumono (Seasonal Dessert)

A flourless cake of white chocolate and green tea
topped with an ice cream of French vanilla bean 
and organic fruit of raspberry and grape
Crème Brulee of black sesame seed 
Hojita tea

Other menu plates for this course:

I wasn't expecting a fantastic dessert, but this one brought strong flavors to the table and complemented the meal so perfectly.

In both the chawanmushi dish and this one I enjoyed eating and drinking out of earthenware, with a wooden spoon. It made these knockout dishes taste even better.

Although the plating styles contained subtle variations, I liked that the whole table of 8 had dessert together and enjoyed the same components. It ended the experience in a unified manner.

G.M., Sommelier Jeffrey Stivers & Chef Niki Nakayama
Chef Niki graciously greeted us at the end of the meal and spent some time chatting with us and taking group photos. 

Overall, that evening truly transported me in many ways. If felt like a mini-vacation. I would enjoy nothing more than returning for another sensory journey with each new season.

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