Tuesday, April 26, 2011

N/Naka - 04/19/2011

3455 S. Overland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 836-6252
It is rare enough that I visit the same restaurant twice in a year. For me to go to the same place twice in two weeks, it damn well better cure cancer. Though the food at N/Naka doesn't have any therapeutic properties (at least advertised ones) it does happen to be quite delicious. During our last visit Niki mentioned that she planned to have a more extensive "Modernist Kaiseki" menu available when the restaurant finally opened. Given how much I enjoyed the regular menu I was eager to return and most of my companions agreed with me. The menu features 13 courses and will change with the seasons, which makes sense given the emphasis kaiseki places on using fresh seasonal ingredients.

Niki was kind enough to email a customized menu as well as an explanation of Kaiseki structure and the reasoning behind her selections. I have incorporated her comments in italics which provide insight into the meal from someone who truly understands kaiseki tradition.

01: Saki Zuke - Split Pea Soup Aoyagi Clams, Fava Beans
In kaiseki, this dish is prepared with a pairing of something common and something uncommon. In tonight’s dish, the "common" being the Pea Soup, and the uncommon being the Aoyagi Clam. I decided to take it a bit further by preparing the soup in an "uncommon" fashion while just grilling the Aoyagi clam making it a common preparation.
By its very nature the sakizuke lends itself to the type of inventiveness that Niki is trying to create with her Modernist Kaiseki menu. The pea soup is jarringly cold (liquid nitrogen?) but retains all the freshness and verve one would expect a unique accompaniment to the snappy briny surf clam. The classic split pea soup is further re-imagined with a melange of fresh herbs, bacon and a gelee of what tasted like clam liquor.

02: Zensai - Foie Gras Dashi Gelee, Saikyo Miso Trout, Unagi rolled in Cucumber, Fava Bean Avocado Salad, White Asparagus Bonito Shavings
This dish, usually consists of 3, 5, 7, 9, or 11 with all the elements representing the season, and one that is ahead of season. The items although "cooked" are meant to be served cold and enjoyed through sipping sake. The textures on the plate had to vary as well as seasoning. The item that was ahead of season was the unagi wrapped in cucumber (summer ingredients).
I couldn't help but compare the foie gras dashi mixture to the sublime foie gras soup I had last time. The cold mixture is sweeter and more subdued, the unctuous foie tempered by the savory dashi. The trout was a touch dry for my tastes but quite typical of cooked fish served cold which I now understand to be dictated by tradition. The unagi was fairly typical tender savory with a distinctive sweetness but it was the thinly sliced cucumber with its almost airy crunch that captured my attention. The fava bean and avocado salad was one of the best things on this plate creamy verdant and kissed with the flavor of fresh yuzu. The white asparagus was prototypically crisp and vegetal while the bonito flakes added a smoky undercurrent to the vegetable.

03: Modern Zukuri - Lobster Tar Tare, Minced Bamboo, Bamboo Shoyu, California White Sturgeon Caviar
An unclassical Sashimi preparation. In this case, a lobster tar tare done with bamboo and Soy Sauce that had bamboo steeped into it.
The lobster is mixed in with bits of bamboo to give it some textural variation which I found immensely enjoyable. The shellfish alone is sweet and snappy while the bamboo adds an earthy wooden crunch. If anything the bamboo seemed to heighten the intensity of the soy, given that the caviar already provided the tartare with salinity, restraint was definitely called for when applying the shoyu.

04: Owan "Still Water" - Madai Soup with Steamed Madai, Shiitake, Mituba, and Yuzu Rind
The bowl dish is usually a clear soup broth that is enjoyed just before sashimi, as it varies the temperature.
The timing of this course was almost prescient as one of my companions almost seemed to despair of ever getting something warm. Truth be told I felt a similar sense of satisfaction from this dish as the temperature contrast was very welcome after three cold dishes. With flavors of fresh citrus zest, earth, and fish the clear broth possessed a nuanced flavor profile that belied its minimalist appearance.

05: Otsukuri Traditional Sashimi - Toro, Chutoro, Uni, Hamachi, Tai, Kumamoto
Sashimi Selection usually 3 kinds, but can be 2 or 5
The sashimi was a mix of old and new but each piece of gorgeous pristine fish was a joy from the bright colors to their idiosyncratic flavors. The chutoro was absolutely magnificent offering a pronounced richness merged with the more austere flavor of akami the result even overshadowed the more one dimensional O-toro. Though the meal calls for 2, 3, or 5 pieces, Niki threw in the Kumamoto, because she wanted us to enjoy the oysters at their peak quality before the season ended. The decision proved to be a good one as even the person who claimed not to like oysters enjoyed these delectable little pearls.

07: Tempura - Takenoko Bamboo, Maitake Mushrooms, Lobster, Aoyagi Kaibashira
Tempura was served tonight to vary the temperature and flavors, served with 3 different seasonings, to match the ingredients used and to prepare you for the next dish.
The tempura came with a full plate of accompaniments, a light tentsuyu with grated daikon, sea salt and yuzu kocho for the vegetables, and curry salt for the scallop. Overall I preferred the vegetables, their woody rustic flavors standing out more clearly against the light fluffy batter. The curry salt was an extremely apropos accompaniment for the scallop, imparting a unique flavor that feels at once familiar and exciting.

06: Mushimono - Chawanmushi Egg Custard with Uni, Snow Crab
Chawanmushi, from something crispy to something soft on your palette.
The Kani Koramushi remains the high point of my two previous meals at Inaka and N/Naka. However in another example of the intimate atmosphere Niki is attempting to create at N/Naka, she has made a point of tracking of individual diner history and crafting new dishes for each visit. As a result, we received the chawanmushi as a substitute and I have to say that I don't mind one bit. The custard itself is utterly silky with a neutral flavor that highlights the flavors of the paired seafood. In addition to the bolts of sweet uni and generous bed of shredded snow crab, the custard is tinged with a palpable aroma of fresh citrus and a rustic woody essence from the mushrooms. The dish remains warm and hearty yet remarkably light almost like eating a quivering cloud.

08: Shiizakana - Abalone Pasta Abalone Liver and Truffle Sauce
Is any dish that the chef chooses to highlight a wine/sake pairing
I have to say the pasta is a substantial step up from last time. The pasta tasted redolent of garlic and truffle while the snappy slices of abalone held up to the weight of the sauce thanks to the overarching bitter brine from the abalone liver. I do wish that we had more appropriate pairings for this dish as it would have lent itself well to a more complex wine than many of the lighter courses.

09: Niku - Hudson Valley Duck Breast, Foie Gras, Kyoto Red Miso
Technically an Autumn dish, served tonight because the sweetness was in sharp contrast to the tartness of the abalone pasta.
I found the presentation of this dish startlingly similar to the shabu shabu course at Urasawa, though here instead of a broth we have thick red miso sauce simmering above the charcoal flame. The duck is firm but tender, very much like a rare roast duck while the foie counters the saccharine essence of the miso sauce. Most of my companions noted the similarity to Peking duck and lamented the absence of steamed buns.

10: Sunomono - Halibut Ceviche
Ceviche was served to help cleanse your palette of the heavy foods before and to reset your palette for the lighter flavors of sushi.
Another fortuitously timed course, my companions were laboring under the weight of the duck and it was impressive to see how quickly the bite of citrus-marinated fish changed their outlook. The use of orange was a new twist, lending the ceviche less biting acidity and more of a sweet tang.

11: Shokuji One - Toro, Hirame, Aoyagi, Hamachi Toro, Seared Toro, Amaebi
First offering of rice, here we did sushi
As with the sashimi, the various nigiri were some of the few holdovers from last time. I thought the toro was more effective as a nigiri than sashimi with the rice tempering the fishes overt fattiness; though still not as impressive as the chutoro. I thought the Aoyagi was noticeably milder and fleshier than nigiri preparations of other clams but still harbored enough brine to be interesting. The seared toro was absolutely spectacular, the char adding a bitter smoky smack to compliment the richness of the fish.

17: Shokuji Two - Uni Hand Roll
To satisfy any hunger left for more rice.
I must say Niki knows me well. While the rest of my group was begging for mercy I could have finished off all four hand rolls with ease. The roll was fairly traditional like the typical uni gunkan maki just with more of it to love.

18: Dessert - Chef’s Garden Kabocha Pumpkin Cheesecake, Green Tea Souffle, Fruits
Dessert consisted of fresh fruit, the green tea souffle from last time and a kabocha squash cheesecake. The cheesecake was the best of the three, creamy sweet filling with just the barest echo of the kobocha's natural flavor and a crumbly graham cracker crust.

Japanese culture thrives on tradition so applying contemporary techniques to kaiseki it feels almost heretical. Still with Niki's understanding of kaiseki, she manages to incorporate contemporary elements that still evoke the sensations of a traditional Kaiseki meal. If anything I think she could be even more aggressive in applying modern techniques, though I suspect that will come with time. The first course is an exemplar of what I hope the meal will be in its mature form, avant garde enough to be at home in Alinea and at the same time honors the kaiseki balance of taste, texture, appearance, and color. After the meal Niki mentioned that she struggled to find quality ingredients that fit the season but tasting the meal one would be hard pressed to realize that. To me N/Naka is one of the city's most interesting and impressive Japanese restaurants, an Urasawa-lite if you will; though with this new menu the gap between the two has just gotten smaller.


Diana said...

Nice! Sounds like a great meal. Still bummed I missed it! Let me know the next time you're going back (in 2 weeks? j/k). :)

shihfan said...

Great Review!
I went the other day, and while I had high hopes for it, I felt my experience was so-so. I had slightly different menu, but I also had the madai fish soup - my fish had few scales on it still. Uni while is always my favorite, I didnt feel her uni was the freshest I've had. Same for the other sushi - all VERY good, but not excellent. She definitely has several good dishes, but overall i was not wowed. Not to mention the timing between course was terribly long.... waitress dropped utensils several times etc. Kinda rough around the edges for a supposed "kaiseki" experience...

Epicuryan said...

It was a great meal... I say wait for the season to progress and ingredients will be more plentiful.

Sorry your meal was mediocre. I do think some of that has to do with growing pains. Our service was a bit rough around the edges and we had some pretty long wait times as well. Hopefully these problems will be corrected with time.

Charlie Fu said...

how much was it pp?

Epicuryan said...

Hey Charlie,
It was 160pp for the 13 Course Modern Kaiseki and 100 for the 9-10 course Omakase

Sam C. said...

I agree your last statement that N/Naka is one of the most interesting restaurants in LA when it comes to kaiseki. I dare say it should be the standard for kaiseki, in LA at the very least. :-) [i know, i'm bold]

Epicuryan said...

That is a very bold statement sir... perhaps you forgot about a little place called Urasawa.

Sam C. said...

Urasawa is a different beast...not to mention the price variance. But when I said standard, it doesn't mean it has to be the best, but meant to be a benchmark for others.