"A pairing of something common with something unique": This is the way your meal will begin at n/naka. Perhaps it will be a gossamer tomato and dashi gelee supporting delicate lobster, which has been wrapped in thinly sliced avocado, garnished with Santa Barbara uni and pansy petals. Or maybe Tasmanian sea trout tartare with asparagus butter and nasturtium leaf. It's the beginning of a sacrament, a meditation, a poem.
Kaiseki, the Japanese formal, multicourse style of dining that emphasizes seasonality, has its Western cousins, certainly, in the tasting menus of high-end European and American restaurants. Yet kaiseki is a different beast: rooted in tradition and formality but open to interpretation. It is less about pure hedonism and more about ritual. It's about eating as a way of understanding the passing of time — both the time it takes you to dine and the seasons that make the meal possible.
At n/naka, chef Niki Nakayama presents a modern interpretation of kaiseki, though not too modern. The ceremony, the carefully calibrated order of dishes, the tradition of using the materials at hand carefully and wisely — all of these are alive and well at n/naka.
A native Angeleno, Nakayama began her cooking career at Takao in Brentwood. Seeking to further her understanding of Japanese cooking and technique, she then spent three years traveling around Japan working in different kitchens, including a Japanese country inn, or ryokan, owned by some relatives. There, she trained specifically in kaiseki.
Upon her return to L.A., Nakayama first opened a sushi restaurant in West Hollywood, Azami Sushi Cafe, which was known for its all-female staff. But later at n/naka, which opened on an unremarkable stretch of Overland Avenue in Palms in the spring of 2011, she committed herself to delivering the full kaiseki experience. To bring the tradition's seasonal underpinnings closer, Nakayama had an organic garden built; she draws on it to create her menus.
The experience of dining at n/naka is almost solemn in its formality. Reservations must be held with a credit card, and if you book online, you'll get a call a few days in advance to see which menu you'd prefer: There are two options, nine or 13 courses, plus a vegetarian offering. Suffice it to say none of these is a good option for a quick meal — you're looking at more than two hours for even the shorter service.
The restaurant is housed in a severe, gray, modern building that has no sign and looks very much like a foreboding office of some sort, perhaps housing a dentist's practice, or a tax lawyer. When you arrive and push through the large wooden door, servers will greet you by name. The rooms are spare, with little to distract you from the rhythm of the meal. Dishes are presented with soft-spoken and detailed explanations, like little hunger-inducing bedtime stories.
Despite all this, the restaurant manages to feel comfortable and friendly. The Japanese penchant for austerity certainly guides the emotional foundation of the restaurant, and even most of the food. But there's lightness and camaraderie and beauty in that austerity.
And so a meal unfolds, in quiet stanzas: A blue shrimp, split open and grilled to its buoyant, juicy ideal and coated with yuzu cream; a modern interpretation of a sashimi course involving otoro, scallions and a tiny sliver of mildly sweet butter flavored with uni; a plate of lovingly arranged sashimi offerings, including tai (sea bream), kanpachi and one perfect Kumamoto oyster with ponzu and lemon.
Eventually, after a steamed dish and a grilled dish (often presented with a personal, flaming, cast-iron hibachi, so that you can grill the evening's selections to your preference), you will arrive at the shiizakana course, described as the "chef's choice, not bound by tradition." For this course, n/naka usually serves a dish that has become Nakayama's signature: spaghettini with black abalone, pickled cod roe and Italian summer truffles. It's a wild dish, the line of the poem that smacks and then soothes you, the one that elevates the meal beyond careful and impressive adherence to custom and turns it into something singular. The perfume of the truffle, the dueling types of textural resistance of the abalone and the pasta, the light acidity of the pickled roe builds to something astounding, one of the most memorable dishes I've had all year.
From there, you move on to a meat course, a lovely medium-rare slice of beef — usually rib-eye — presented with seasonal vegetables, perhaps a puree of lunar carrots from the chef's garden and a sprig of broccolini. As well-executed as it is, this dish proved the least interesting to me — more like the fussed-over food you might find at a standard high-end hotel restaurant than the subtle revelations of the rest of the menu.
Then, a flurry of sushi, pieces brought out two at a time, the fish gleaming, the rice the comforting temperature of a sunny day. As you finish off your meal, with a low bowl of vibrant green matcha tea to help you digest, and a green tea chocolate cake alongside a black sesame creme brulee, you may find that the rhythm of the meal has gotten into your bones.
With their soothing demeanor and attention to detail, the servers here are an extension of Nakayama's vision. About one-third of the way into my most recent meal, my waiter realized I had dined at the restaurant not too long before. Rather than the usual, "Good to see you again, thanks for coming back," he seemed quietly concerned, and when he returned to the table, he discreetly asked me if I knew the date of my previous visit, as he understood the reservation name had been different. I realized that he was going back and looking at the menu I had eaten before, because the chef did not want me to repeat any dishes I'd had on my previous visit. And when Nakayama came to the table at the end of the meal (which she does for every table), she apologized: Had they known I was returning, they wouldn't have repeated any dishes. I was stunned — in the 10-plus courses I'd been served, only three were familiar. The idea that Nakayama might rewrite the complex poem of kaiseki for one diner is astonishing.
Almost everything Nakayama is doing at n/naka is astonishing, in fact. For such a small operation to create such a perfectly calibrated, complex experience shows a level of dedication that's more than uncommon — it's extraordinary. There are more exciting dining options in town, ones with a louder story to tell. But for the quiet poetry of seasonality and reflection, n/naka is unparalleled.
N/NAKA | Four stars | 3455 S. Overland Ave. | (310) 836-6252 | n-naka.com | Tues.-Fri., seatings begin at 6 p.m.; Sat. seatings begin at 5:30 p.m.; reservations required | $110-$165 per person | Beer, wine and sake served | Valet and street parking