I had the best spaghetti of my life not in a quaint Italian restaurant, but at a newish Japanese restaurant specializing in kaiseki-style dishes.
n/naka sits on an unassuming corner off of Overland. If the outside of the restaurant reminds you of a zen garden or a spa, it’s because a spa used to be in that location. Upon walking in, you’re greeted by dim lights, wood slatted partitions, a handful of small tables occupying a small, intimate space, and a feeling of tranquility thanks to the mini rock garden arrangement on each table that also serves as a centerpiece.
We were celebrating a special occasion, Will’s birthday, and while, I was thrilled to find a kaiseki restaurant that even had a vegan option, I was also worried that the vegan portions would not be up to par. I need not have worried. The 10-course vegan meal was wonderful!
Our experience at N/Naka was really different from meals at other restaurants that had a vegan tasting menu. Instead of the vegan option just being a version of the omnivore dish, only without the meat, chef Niki Nakayama really outdid herself thinking up innovative dishes for those of the non-meat eating persuasion.
The restaurant only has three things on the menu:
- a traditional kaiseki meal (10 courses)
- a modern kaiseki meal (13 courses)
- a vegetarian kaiseki (10 courses — I called ahead to ask if veganizing it was doable and they were confident it was)
Although the option I chose for myself was a traditional kaiseki meal, there were still modern elements to it in the form of gelees, purees, and presentation.
During the sashimi course, I had the more traditional slices of raw fish and a wonderful raw oyster topped with uni. Will’s vegan version of this consisted of dark and light konnyaku and expertly prepared vegetables — not exactly sashimi, but something close. The chef came up with even better options during the nigiri courses for Will: expertly cross-hatched eggplant nigiri, a smokey looking mushroom nigiri, and some maki made from maitake tempura.
Two of my favorite things that night were the lobster and crab in tomato broth and the pasta dish. The lobster and crab was formed into a ball sitting in a thick, rich tomato broth. It was eaten by taking the spoon and breaking down the ball and then delivering into your mouth, a little bit of broth and a little bit of meat.
The pasta dish was spaghetti topped with fish roe, thin, smoky slices of abalone, and shaved truffles. Yes, the abalone was spectacular, yes the truffles were to die for, but the stand out of the dish was the humble spaghetti. It was cooked to perfection! It was al dente but not the “oops, I slightly under-cooked the pasta so I’ll just say it’s al dente” type of al dente. It was chewy, but forgiving, and each strand was perfectly separate from the other. It will be the standard I strive for each time I cook pasta now.
While we were both pleased with most of the dishes, there were a couple that weren’t as good as the others. I had a beef dish that, compared to the quality of the other dishes, fell short because the beef was more well done than I would have liked. Nothing makes me sadder than over-cooked beef. One of Will’s desserts, which was described as a rice ball in sweet broth, was nothing more than the sweet rice balls like the ones I could get at the Chinese market. It was good, but nothing spectacular.
Despite the minor mis-steps, N/Naka is now one of the best places I’ve eaten all year. Most dishes not only tasted great, but showed thought in the way flavors and textures played with each other, but not in an overly complicated way. The chef had the right amount of restraint when dealing with ingredients.What was presented on the plate was less about showing off what kind of weird things you can do to food, but more about celebrating key components in different ingredients. I’m not expert in kaiseki, but that seems like a successful example of what kaiseki is all about.
455 S Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
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