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.

Sushi Glutton – Takao Three

Restaurant: Takao [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]

Location: 11656 San Vicente Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90049. (310) 207-8636

Date: May 15, 2011

Cuisine: Japanese / Sushi

Rating: 9/10 creative “new style” sushi

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I’ve already covered Takao in some detail HERE and then separately here, but we went back (we go often) and I built another “custom omakase” trying some different things. The full menu and some information on the history of the place can be found through the first link.


House cold sake. Masumi “Okuden-Kanzukuri” Nagano prefecture.


Heirloom totmato salad with sesame dressing.


Tai (red snapper), with garlic, salt, red peppercorn, onions, olive oil. A very bright flavor, and the peppercorns, not spicy at all, add a nice textural component.


Seared bonito sashimi with scallions and ginger in ponzu.


Miso soup. I think if you ask they have a couple different types. This is the basic scallion and tofu.


Uni (sea urchin) tempura with shiso leaf and seaweed. Sea salt.


There is also the classic tempura dipping sauce.


Here is a closeup of one of the Uni fries. This stuff is yummy! With the crunch of the fry, the minty flavor of the shiso and the briney soft taste/texture of the sea urchin pairing wonderfully.


“Scottish Salmon ‘to-ban’ Taki.” Salmon and vegetables cooked on Japanese earthenware ‘to-ban’ with special Miso sauce.


Rock Shrimp Tempura Dynamite. The underlying component is in itself tasty. Sweet rock shrimp perfectly fried. Then you ad some dynamite with it’s zesty zing and it gets even better. For those not in the know Dynamite is a warm sauce consisting of mayo, sriarcha hot sauce, and masago semlt roe.


The big sushi plate. This was all mine! And so were most of the preceding dishes.


Kani (Alaskan king crab) sushi.


Japanese scallop sushi (raw).


On the bottom, Ika (squid), perfect chewy pasty texture. Underneath was shiso leaf.


Scottish Salmon.


Kanpachi (young yellowtail).


Uni (sea urchin — from Santa Barbara).


kura (salmon eggs).


O-toro (ultra fatty tuna belly). Like butter!


Unagi (fresh water eel) BBQ, with sweet BBQ sauce.


Tamago (sweet egg omelet) sushi.

And this wraps up the custom omakase.

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Below is the Salmon Terriyaki “set dinner,” it comes with everything shown.


Salad.


Mixed tempura.


Miso soup.


Salmon Terriyaki.


Rice.


Choice of dessert, in this case vanilla mochi balls (ice cream coated in sweetened pounded rice).


The chefs at work, Takao himself on the right.

For more LA area sushi, see here.

Food as Art: Sushi House Unico

Restaurant: Sushi House Unico (SHU)

Location: 2932 1/2 Beverly Glen Circle – Bel Air, Ca 90077 (310) 474-2740

Date: Nov 12, 2010

Cuisine: New Style Sushi

Rating: A great “Nobu” clone with some dishes of its own.

 

Nearly 15 years ago now when I first ate at Matsuhisa I was blown away. I was already a veteran Sushi eater, having started going to Washington D.C.s one (then two) places in the late 70′s, and having been to Japan 2 or 3 times at that point (now it’s around 20). At the time it seemed like a culinary breakthrough. Classic sushi was great, but here was a whole new cuisine based on “modernizing” and combining Japanese elements with some other sensibility. Fundamentally it seemed intensely creative. But nowadays half the restaurants in LA have Miso Cod or Yellowtail Sashimi with Jalapeno. In Food just as in any other art, creativity is surprisingly rare. SHU is very much derivative of this tradition, but unlike many of the places (Sushi Ryoku & Katsuya you know who you are!) does add a dash of its own style. Now we had read that SHU combined Japanese flavors with Italian. As a lover of both cuisines I didn’t really see this. It was more like a 95%/5% split in the Japanese favor. A few dishes had an occasional ingredient pulled from the Italian palette (like Olive Oil), but that was about it.

 

The menu, left half.

And right.  There is also a separate Sushi menu and a specials of the day menu.

“Edamame,” the usual. They just put it on the table, which some places do.

This is unfiltered Sake, served cold. It looks like the Japanese soda Pocari Milk. I liked it, smoother than many filtered Sakes, with a nice “rice” flavor.

Miso Soup w/ Tofu & Green Onion,” the classic. Certainly well done, but I object to the presence of the spoon.

“Tuna Carpaccio. Thinly sliced Tuna w/ arugola, extra virgin Olive Oil, Yuzu & bottarga,” was very tasty, bright, soft, with a pronounced citrus zing and a good dose of black pepper. While it did have Olive Oil, I’d hardly call it Italian — but I liked it!

“Wild Yellowtail: Tomato Sashimi,” was nice. The sauce had a LOT of zing to it, very vinegary in a good way, with a little hint of spice afterwards.

“Heirloom tomato salad with Jalapenos, onion, cilantro and Jalapeno dressing.” I only tried the dressing, as I detest raw tomatoes (one of 2 foods I don’t like). My wife liked it, although it was a chopstick challenge. The dressing was on the side and I used it on some other dishes as it had a great, very bright citrus, vinegar, jalapeno tang.

“Salmon Carpaccio, thinly sliced Salmon, w/ capers, arugolo, extra virgin Olive oil, sea salt & lemon,” I didn’t try. In fact, I didn’t order, but it was so pretty I photoed it from the next table over.

“Crispy Risotto w/ Spicy Tuna Tartar & Sliced Jalapeno” was a very nice dish, but the Risotto name was a total misnomer. It’s the standard “friend crispy rice cake,” topped with spicy tuna. But it was very good, even though I’m not a spicy tuna fan. Spicy tuna is to Sushi as Spaghetti and Meatballs is to Italian.

“Broiled Miso Marinated Black Cod,” the Nobu classic and one of my wife’s favorites.

“Roch Shrimp Tempura w/ spicy creamy mayo” is another Nobu classic, but it was done just as well here.

Click the pic for a zoom. Starting left to right across the top:  Toro, Salmon, Albacore, Uni, Japanese Scallop, Eki (squid), Fresh Water Eel, and Tamago (Egg Omelet). The sushi was excellent. It was just a notch below what you get at Nobu, the late Hump (sob), or other extremely top LA places. So extremely yummy, but not totally sublime. Bear in mind that I am an extreme sushi snob with over 30 years of practice.

The unasked, but welcome fruit plate. I was too slow with the camera.

The trendy interior.

And exterior, right next to Vibrato Jazz Grill.

Overall, SHU was a very good place. It did the “classic” Nobu dishes well, and added enough originality to give it some flavor of its own.