Food as Art – N/Naka

Restaurant: N/Naka [1, 2]

Location: 3455 S. Overland Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90034. 310.836.6252

Date: July 22, 2011

Cuisine: Modern Kaiseki

Rating: Awesome

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N/Naka opened only three months ago. It’s the brainchild of chef/owner Niki Nakayama and is a rare entry (along with Urwasawa) in the Kaiseki category of Japanese. This is a traditional style of extended meal of small highly ornate dishes that is simultaneously traditional and modern. Originally it was a form of Imperial cuisine from Kyoto, but in the hands of Nakayama it’s received a bit of a modernist twist ala infusions of ideas and techniques from Ferran Adrià, the Spanish genius responsible for many modernist trends in cooking.


The unassuming frontage is on Overland just south of the 10 freeway.

Inside is minimalist, Japanese inspired, and very attractive.

Small attractive details are very Japanese.

Be warned, this restaurant has no ala carte menu at all (yay!). There are three options. A 10-13 course Modern Kaiseki, a nine course smaller Kaiseki (still long), and a ten course Vegetarian Tasting. All three options can be coupled with wine pairings. Below I will present the long Modern Kaiseki and the Vegetarian.

Modern Kaiseki (w/ wine pairings)


Graham beck sparkling, south africa. A nice dry champagne style pinot.

Saki Zuke

(A pairing of something common and something unique)

Cauliflower tofu, marinated salmon roe, uni butter, micro greens.

A wonderful blend of textures and flavors. The tufo was soft and gelatinous, the uni is… well uni-like, and the bits of Ikura (salmon roe) burst in the mouth as little flavor morsels. Delicious.


2008 — brooks riesling, williamette valley, oregon.

Zensai

(Main seasonal ingredient presented as an appetizer)

Soft shell crab, avocado sphere, scallop “dynamite”

Seared bluefin toro avocado rice, miso marinated black cod


Soft shell crab, avocado sphere, red pepper sorbet. The nicely friend crab and the sorbet played nicely off each other.


miso marinated black cod. Pretty much the Matsuhisa classic!


Seared bluefin toro avocado rice, caviar. Seared toro is always good, nice pairing.


scallop “dynamite.” This was pretty delicious. The soft, slightly chewy, bits of scallop played deliciously off the rich dynamite.


2009 — erbaluce di caluso, favar, piedmont, italy. Parker gives this 88 points. “The 2009 Erbaluce di Caluso is an unusual white that in many ways recalls Pinot vinified off the skins. Flowers, red berries and minerals come together nicely on a mid-weight yet generous frame. Clean, mineral notes reappear on the finish, giving the wine its sense of proportion. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2012.”

Modern zukuri

(modern interpretation of sashimi)

Tuna and escolar checkers, ponzu reduction, italian black truffles

A delicious blend of little sashimi cubes and a richer more European sauce, plus the truffles. Very nice.


2010-shesbro roussanne, carmel valley, ca.

Owan “Still Water”

Lobster “shinjo” mousseline, chef’s garden momotaro tomato broth

You break up that little lobster thing into the soup, and eat that way. The soup had a delicious and light tomato dill thing going on, and the lobster added just a touch of richness.


Sake-kimura junmai daiginjo, akita, japan. This was a spectacular sake, tasting strongly of anise. This is the kind of sake where they shave every rice kernel down before making it!

Otsukuri

(Traditional Sashimi )

Big eye otoro, shima aji , sea bream, santa barbara sweet shrimp,

Kumamoto oyster with uni

Some classic sashimi. The fish was all first rate, the wasabi hand ground.


Rw draft sake, suehiro syuzo, aizu japan. This was a fresher, younger sake.

Yakimono

Japan sazae butter yaki with maitake mushrooms

Japanese conch (like we had at Matsuhisa), but even more delicious as it was mixed with really yummy mushrooms and quail egg.


2007 — slumberger gewurstraminer prince abbes. Medium sweet.

Yakimono 2

Foie gras with eggplant, miso balsamic, shiitake mushroom

Double yum! Fois gras done up like BBQ eel (with some eggplant and mushroom).


2009 — elke chardonnay- anderson valley.

Shiizakana

(Not bound by tradition, the chef’s choice dish to be paired with wine)

Spaghetti with abalone, truffles, pickled cod roe, abalone liver sauce

This was a pretty amazing pasta dish, blending east and west. I’m not usually a huge abalone fan (although I have it often enough). It’s usually too chewy, but this wasn’t at all. There was a combined truffle and briny taste to this dish, not unlike a good spaghetti botarga, but also a truffle and butter/liver influenced richness.


2009 — evening land vineyards blue label pinot noir, eola amity hills, oregon. “Evening Land Vineyards is a group headed by movie magnate Mark Tarlov that also owns Pinot vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and Santa Rita Hills and is making wines in Burgundy. They gained control of one of the Willamette Valley’s prized properties, Seven Springs Vineyard, and created an immediate sensation by signing on Dominique Lafon of Comte Lafon in Burgundy as consulting winemaker. The Evening Land group is also making a major effort to restore the health and vitality of Seven Springs. The most recent development is the addition of renowned Master Sommelier Larry Stone as President and GM of the group in August 2010. Over the past 2-3 years there has been an awakening among some of the Willamette Valley’s most distinguished vignerons that their region is capable of producing world class Chardonnay. With Dominique Lafon and Larry Stone on board, there is no question that Evening Lands will be playing a starring role in this drama. There are now two serious Gamay producers in the Willamette Valley, Doug Tunnell of Brick House being the other.”

Niku

Snake river farms kobe beef kushiyaki skewers, baby corn

A small portion of yakaniku, ala Totoraku (see here). Delicious and rich. Not quite the beefy effect of the mega secret beef meal, but a nice note in this complex dinner.

Sunomono

Halibut fin ceviche

Yuzu omoi, yuzu blend sake

A tasty little intermezzo.


Sake- shichida, sago  japan. This apparently is an ultra-ultra rare sake.


In the glass. It was darn good. Darn good. So were all the sakes, but I liked this one and the first one the best.


Housemade ginger.


Some traditional sushi. Jeju island hirame, o-toro


yellow tail belly, shima aji


live scallops, uni shinkomaki. Overall the sushi was good, but not quite at the level of the very top dedicated sushi places. Still, it was very very good sushi.

Shokuji

(Rice dish)

sea trout and roe chazuke

It’s traditional to end the savories in Japan with a “rice dish.” On the left we have a very traditional bit of salmon like fish, rice, and nori. Refreshing and stomach settling.


On the right were two pickles cut roll pieces. I loved these. I’m a huge Japanese pickles fan and really enjoy the crunchy vinegar thing.

Dessert

Black sesame crème brulee, fruits

A very nice crème brulee with a soft sesame flavor.

There was also a dessert wine, a light medium sweet late harvest wine, but I forgot to get a photo of it.

Dessert

ice cream on cornbread

Tasted of corn, and ice cream — big surprise. Light and yummy.

Vegetarian Tasting

Saki Zuke

(A pairing of something common and something unique)

Cauliflower Tofu with Truffles

Zensai

(Main seasonal ingredient presented as an appetizer)

Chilled chef’s garden kabocha soup, braised wakame seaweed with shiitake

Lotus root “kinpira”, grilled eggplant, shiso tempura with tofu & avocado


grilled eggplant


braised wakame seaweed with shiitake


shiso tempura with tofu & avocado


Chilled chef’s garden kabocha soup


Lotus root “kinpira”

Modern Zukuri

(Modern interpretation of sashimi)

Compressed watermelon, cucumbers, baby yellow squash, baby zucchini, yuzu

Kimchee air

Otsukuri

 (Sashimi )

Arrowroot konyaku, whith konyaku, spinach, kabocha, baby taro

Nanohana ripini, carrots

Owan “Still Water”

Potatoe “shinjo”, chef’s garden momotaro tomato broth

Shiizakana

(Not bound by tradition, the chef’s choice dish)

Spaghetti wild mushrooms, truffles

Yakimono

Lotus root mochi, spinach teppanyaki


avocado, Sushi-eggplant & shiso


shiitake, grilled konyaku

Maitake roll, cucumber and plum

Shokuji

(Rice dish)

ocha zuke with wasabi nori

The desserts were the same as the Modern Kaiseki. Overall a pretty spectacular job of approximating the full range of proteins using only vegetable sources. Vegetarian (or otherwise protein restricted) foodies should delight in this.

I was extremely impressed with N/Naka, and you can bet I’ll be back soon. The food is highly elaborate and offers a full suite of flavors meticulously prepared. I very much enjoy even the fully traditional Kaiseki dinners, but this slightly modernist take was even better. Sometimes chefs with inferior pallets will introduce modernist techniques into traditional meals and create uncomfortable taste pairings. Niki Nakayama clearly has a very sure and confident palette, as I found every dish harmonious and balanced.

I just hope the somewhat adventurous and all-tasting format doesn’t make it difficult for the restaurant to thrive (and I wouldn’t change that at all for myself, but some might be intimidated). I have the feeling that the menu changes up frequently, and is very seasonal, and I hope that’s the case — because I’ll be back! (And I was, click here for a second meal)

Or here for other LA Japanese restaurants.

La Sandia

Restaurant: La Sandia

Location: 395 Santa Monica Place 305N,Santa Monica, CA 90401. Tel. 310.393.3300

Date: March 5, 2011

Cuisine: Mexican

Rating: Tasty, but some serious service issues need working out.

 

I’ve been questing through the various new offerings in the retrofitted Santa Monica place. I’ve already reviewed Xino (pseudo Chinese) and Zengo (Latin-Asian fusion), and next up is La Sandia, which is a modernized Mexican.


The upscale Disneyland-style decor ain’t half bad. But we did start off on a slightly sour note. They don’t take reservations on weekends, as I was told on the phone, “because they get so busy.” This always gets my blood boiling, because it’s basically like saying, “We don’t care about you (the customer), we just want to pack you into our bar and milk a couple extra drinks out of you.” I have long refused to go to places like Cheesecake factory on this basis as they adopt clearly “non user-friendly” policies to their own benefit. I was also told there was a wait of 5-10 minutes for a table of 2, when I could clearly see empty tables.

In a place that doesn’t take reservations?

We were in a rush for a movie so I bullied the hostess past this and we sat immediately. Not my preference but I hate that kind of crap and I was already in a mood.


The PDF version of the menu is HERE. Pretty big menu here of traditional Mexican items and some reinterpreted.

Chips. Pretty typical, but the salsa was good, cooked down the way I like it.

Cadillac margarita on the rocks, no salt. This was a nicely made margarita. The lime wasn’t that nuclear green crap and I could taste the tequila – which wasn’t the cheap stuff.

Now a note here. We were in a rush to get to a movie, and the parking had taken longer than we expected, so we told them we were in a hurry. This is a bit of a stress test for restaurants. The ultimate prize winner in this category, BTW, is Ortolan who flawlessly pounded through a huge prixe fixe in just over an hour. Overall La Sandia did fine with the speed, although they made us wait 20-25 minutes and then dumped all four dishes (2 appetizers and 2 entrees) simultaneously. Why they couldn’t have brought the appetizers 10 minutes earlier (a salad and a pre-prepped pastry) is anybodies guess. As I said, we got out of there in totally reasonable time, but they could have paced it better.

“LA SANDIA SALAD, arugula / cranberry / caramelized walnuts / goat cheese /pasilla-balsamic vinaigrette.”

“BEEF & CHORIZO EMPANADAS, braised beef / chorizo / raisins / oaxaca cheese / almond / crema fresca / chipotle sauce.” Very tasty. The outside was soft and buttery, and the inside rich and meaty. The sauce and the crema cut this nicely too. Exactly what I was looking for in this dish.

“ACHIOTE SALMON, grilled salmon / mild spice-citrus marinade / chile morita sauce /tomatillo-mango salsa / sweet corn tamal / charro beans.”

“SHRIMP AND AVOCADO SALAD, avocado stuffed with sauteed citrus-adobo shrimp / corn relish / cilantro pesto / chile chipotle aioli.” This was a fairly tasty and light shrimp and avocado salad. Perfect for a light lunch. The catch is, I didn’t order it.

I had ordered the Chipotle Shrimp entree. Now the room was very loud, and even though I repeated it 3-4 times I can understand the waitress making the error. The problem was that when she set it down I told her it was wrong and she said, “No it isn’t, there’s Chipotle in the dressing,” or some such nonsense. She then scooted away.

I ate it anyway because we didn’t have time, but I HATE that kind of BS. I don’t mind an honest mistake, they happen, but don’t try to snow the customer as to what he ordered. On a separate service note, I had ordered another Margarita in the gap waiting for the food but it came 15-20 minutes later with the check — after we had finished all our food.

I don’t like to sound petty, but this is a restaurant review, and drink timing is one of my pet peeves. Why would I want to pound an entire drink as I stand up to leave?

In any case, I called over the manager over the entree issue — something I do only about once a year — and he was very nice and apologetic and pulled the salad from the bill. Really I shouldn’t have paid for the second drink either, but I didn’t want to get into it. I do give him points for compensating correctly for the mistakes. He did fine by me, but the staff should NOT try and Jedi-mind-trick a customer into thinking he ordered something he didn’t.

Overall, the food here was pretty tasty. It’s owned by the same group as Zengo (which is hidden behind it), and while not as good, does maintain a solid kitchen. They have some serious service issues to work through, although it’s always possible it was a bad night. I’ll try it again at some point, I’m essentially a food based eater, and really find service mistakes to be more of an academic exercise in management problems than an actual irritation. Xino across the way had some similar problems in that we ordered about 10 small dishes and they delivered 90% of them simultaneously instead of 2-3 at a time! As someone who has eaten out at restaurants between 4 and 15 times a week for over thirty years, from taco shacks to Michelin 3 stars, I’ve pretty much seen it all.