Kaiseki Meal at n/naka

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.

kaiseki dinner

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:

  1. a traditional kaiseki meal (10 courses)
  2. a modern kaiseki meal (13 courses)
  3. 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.

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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.

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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.

kaiseki dinner

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.

kaiseki dinner

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.

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n/naka
455 S Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 836-6252

Tempura at Home

Maybe I was distracted when I came up with this idea, but I thought that an all-vegetable dinner of vegetable tempura would be a healthy dinner.  Hey, it’s only rice and vegetables right? Oh yeah, I forgot about the battered and deep-fried part.

dinner at home

Unfortunately, most tempura mixes contain egg, so not exactly vegan. Not sure why they have egg though, since it’s simple enough to make tempura batter without egg. The secret is ice cold water. Use ice-cubes if available.

Easy vegan tempura batter:

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup rice flour

2 tsp salt

1.5 cups ice cold water (I measured out the water and stuck it in the freezer until the top layer was all icy)

Mix together the dry ingredients, then slowly stir in the water.  Stir until roughly incorporated. It’s okay (and even desirable) to have lumps.

dinner at home

Things that were delicious as tempura: slices of Chinese eggplant, green beans, slices of lotus root, broccoli florets, sweet potato slices (tastes like chips!), maittake mushrooms.  Man, the mushrooms were ridiculously good. Almost a little *too* umami and earthy prepared this way, but the sauce cuts down on that earthiness really well.

Dipping sauce:

soy sauce

rice vinegar

mirin

grated daikon radish

green onion

splash of water

Sorry, no real recipe for the sauce. I just eye-balled everything. I think the soy sauce vinegar ratio was about 2:1. The  mirin was barely a splash.  I included a splash of water because I didn’t want the dipping sauce to be too salty.  What really makes the difference is grated radish. That stuff is like crack!

Vegan Katsu Curry

Finally, a food-related post! As you can see in the picture with the pliers on my dining room table, I’m still in the process of unpacking, organizing, and moving in. I took a break from all that to whip out a proper home-cooked dinner. On a weeknight, no-less! Well, sort of.

Vegan katsu

The night before, I prepared some seitan from a package of vital wheat gluten (like this one.) Vital wheat gluten is a weird thing. It has the texture of flour, but once you add liquid (or broth, in my case) and start kneading it, it becomes a porous, spongey, dough that’s very unlike regular bread dough. I shaped the gluten mass into various cutlet-like pieces and boiled them in salted water with kombu for about an hour. Boiling the wheat gluten before use is crucial — a step I missed the first couple of times I prepared it. Otherwise, the gluten becomes a chewy, tough, mass.

I prepared the katsu by breading it in panko and frying in the cast iron frying pan with shallow oil on both sides. That part was easy.

Almost as easy was the curry sauce, which was basically a roux. I threw some oil and chopped onions in a pan and waited for the onions to soften. Then threw in two heaping teaspoons of madras curry powder. Stirred it around until fragrant, added a few teaspoons more oil, about two tablespoons of all purpose flour, and stir, stir, stirred until the flour browned. Then, I poured in about 1 cup of broth while stirring frequently. This should make a very thick paste-like roux. Then pour in another 1 cup of water to thin it out, add salt and soy sauce to taste, dump in some chopped carrots, turn down the heat, and cook, covered until the carrots soften, stirring occasionally so the curry doesn’t burn on the bottom.

Maybe I was heavy-handed with the curry powder because it packed more heat than I realized, but a little sweating is good now that the weather is starting to cool, no?