a modern kaiseki experience
address / 3455 overland ave, los angeles, ca 90034
I recently had the opportunity to dine at Chef Niki Nakayama’s restaurant, n/naka, and if it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard the name on the Netflix original documentary series, Chef’s Table. First of all, what is kaiseki? To be short and quick, kaiseki hails from Japan and is a multi-course dining experience that focuses on seasonal and local ingredients. The meal follows an order of dishes that highlights cooking techniques, such as:
mukozuke traditional sashimi
futamono lidded dish most often a soup
yakimono broiled seasonal fish
mizumono seasonal dessert
Nowadays, chefs have more freedom in preparing these courses, leading way to Chef Niki's modern kaiseki. Dining at these establishments is no doubt quite an expense and to be honest, I think I have my dad to thank for showing me that dining out isn’t just about paying for food, but about the whole experience. Growing up, I consider myself extremely lucky to have had someone that enlightened me about food and dining, and to be honest, I don’t think he (or I at that point) really realized it. Our first special occasion family dinners would be at Sizzler, where the salad bar was the ultimate dining experience. Unlimited dino-shaped chicken nuggets and DIY tacos where you can put more meat than lettuce and nobody would say a word? Now that was a kid’s food heaven.
As I got older, my dad would treat my brothers and I to steakhouses and dared our palettes with introductions to Japanese, Spanish, Mediterranean, Korean and fusion American dishes. My first memorable dish was at Julian Serrano in Las Vegas. I still remember the moment they brought out the paella, a seafood rice dish that we were told would take about 45 minutes to prepare. When the server presented the dish on our table, I was blown away by the colors and the plating. The dish looked more like an art piece and I almost didn’t want to touch it except for that fact that the smell was too enticing not for me to pick up my fork and dig in.
That’s when I slowly came to the realization that dining out doesn’t have to be about stuffing yourself with as much food as possible for as little as possible (which at times is definitely much needed so holla at that $10 AYCE KBBQ), but about the entirety of it all, from the moment you walk into the door, to the anticipation of each incoming dish, to the attentiveness and knowledge of the servers.
Fast forward to now, and there are times when I find myself with my laptop at 9:50 AM on the first of the month waiting for the clock to strike 10 AM so I can refresh the page and book a reservation not for that month, but for the following month. It sounds a little crazy and maybe a little insane, but like people who wait in anticipation for Coachella and EDC, I do the same for restaurants.
The biggest question probably lingering is, “Why?”
Food is an every day thing and for the most part, we don’t think about it all too much.
What’s easy to cook?
What will keep me full until dinner?
I think the most fascinating thing is that some people can look at food and think in a completely different way. Rather than that every day mindset, I can only imagine they think of questions such as:
How can I elevate this ingredient?
What combination of flavors work well?
How can I express my story in food?
So I want to hear their story, see their creativity, and feel their expressions through the dishes they train so many years to create. At n/naka, the meal progressed beautifully. The ingredients never drowned each other or competed with one another. As each dish was presented, I came to realize that the chef's intention was not to present rich, explosive flavors with each course, but rather present a balance - an ebb and flow of flavors, rather than a full-force meal. Sashimi and cucumber followed unagi and foie gras. Warm miso soup followed cold uni.
Before I drag on (which I most certainly can), here are a few dishes (in no specified order) from the 13-course meal Chef Niki Nakayama and her crew presented the evening I dined at n/naka.
1 / conch, dashi foam, roasted konbu soup, caviar
2 / scallop, avocado sauce, radish
3 / spaghettini with abalone, cod roe, truffles
4 / seasonal sashimi
5 / maguro, miso, cucumber
6 / strawberry, foie gras, shitake mushroom, unagi