Tucked away in Palms, a Japanese method, exquisitely expressed.
Even though reservations book out weeks in advance for an evening seating at West L.A.’s n/naka, anyone with a grip on the unmarked door inevitably looks around to make sure it’s the right place. Within the concrete triangle framed by 10-405-Venice Boulevard, the façade is still remarkably unassuming.
Inside, rectangular trays filled with smooth pebbles replace florals, a glassed-in case holds bottles of sparkling wine and Alsatian pinot blanc. Simplicity belies complexity—kind of like a Kurosawa film.
Chalk that up to Niki Nakayama. While one could head straight to Kitcho or Kikunoi in Kyoto for the experience, stateside, hers is among the few restaurants exclusively devoted to the rigorous cooking practice of kaiseki. (Others are Katsuhiro Yamasaki’s Wakuriya in San Mateo, and New York’s Kyo-Ya.) A younger Nakayama embraced the format while living in Japan—years before opening her first restaurant, her apprenticeship under Takao Izumida and even before culinary school.
While often mistakenly used as shorthand for any multi-course, fancy Japanese meal, the word kaiseki references the most formal way to dine. It also harkens zen monasteries, and tea ceremony-style dinners. It is not omakase, the extended sushi dinner concept where skilled chefs riff freely. Achieving harmony in sparing beauty, kaiseki is more structured than omakase. Like scenes in a play, the chef links dishes in a progression. (At n/naka, for example, the Modern Kaiseki is 13 plates.) Confined by rules with keen attention to aesthetic and balance, each course requires a specific concept or method to fulfill—Sakizuke: pairing of something common and something unique; Suimono: still water; Mushimono: steamed dish; Shiizakana: not bound by tradition.
In this search for harmony, the tone is seasonality—an encapsulation of variables like region, time of year, climate, weather, flavors, what crop is at peak. To that end, Nakayama grows vegetables and herbs in her Arcadia garden. She harvests every morning before driving across town to prepare the day’s menu. As summer approaches, she’s planting exceptional kabocha squash and baby corn, shiso leaves and borage.
The chef explains, “You can have great ingredients and great technique. That’s a given. What’s different is how well a chef seasons food so nothing gets lost. Our preferences are also greatly affected by the foods we eat as we are growing up. I could use salt or soy or sugar to get to what I feel is the right point…and it has to fit the environment,” she adds. “Seasoning is instinctual.” A simple pickled daikon. A multidimensional carrot purée. Decadent crab, dashi, yuzu and an egg ready for piercing. Follow the server’s directions and taste. Perfectly seasoned. 3455 S. Overland Ave., L.A., 310-836-6252; n-naka.com.
Written and edited by Alison Clare Steingold
Photographed by Zen Sekizawa