A year after opening, n/naka has settled into a low-key groove while becoming one of the most (surprisingly) difficult reservations to score in town. Although chef/owner Niki Nakayama is a former protégé of the legendary Morihiro Onodera (the former chef/owner of Mori Sushi), n/naka bears little resemblance to the sushi and omakase at Mori. Nakayama focuses not on sushi, but on the ancient tradition of kaiseki, a classical style of Japanese cooking that dictates a very specific progression of textures, temperatures, tastes and seasonal ingredients. As with kaiseki anywhere—Beverly Hills’s Urasawa honors the same style of prestigious cooking—à la carte is not an option. N/naka offers a choice of three menus: 13 courses ($165), 9 courses ($110) or vegetarian (10 courses, $110).
The menus change daily and seasonally. Kaiseki always begins with something cold and slippery and, on a recent visit, that translated into a highball glass filled with sea urchin and lobster in a bath of chilled dashi and topped with a savory foam the color of avocado. Next came a beautifully seared diver-harvested scallop cuddled next to a warm, crispy okra pod, an ear of corn not much bigger than a toothpick, a miniature orange tomato and a painted swath of yuzu cream. The ceremony progresses like this for two or three hours. Sashimi might be topped with something surprising, like finely shaved Parmesan cheese. And, somehow, it actually works. At some point in the meal, the server might place a small hibachi on the table in order to grill a whole pompano (an amberjack, 4 or 5-inches long at most), which would have been delightful if the hibachi had been fired with smokeless charcoal instead of Sterno gel, which gives off the most putrid, toxic odor to which no one should ever have to breathe at such close range. And therein lies the puzzling dichotomy of n/naka: the restaurant’s ambitions are honorable and lofty—few chefs of Japanese cuisine in Los Angeles attempt this level of art and ceremony—but the execution simply doesn’t keep pace with the prices.
It’s not just the kitchen’s occasional misstep that’ll leave you scratching your head. The restaurant employs a skeletal crew—no one greets you at the door, leaving guests to loiter in the foyer until an overworked busboy or food runner happens to look up and notice that someone new has arrived. You might even find it unconscionable and certainly surprising that such an expensive restaurant would refuse to offer valet parking, forcing its well-heeled customers who are about to fork over hundreds of dollars per table to circle the block several times in search of the last available parking spot on the street, which might be two or three blocks away. (The most available spaces are on the opposite side of the street, but be warned: it’s an extremely difficult street to cross because the traffic is so heavy and unyielding.)
Drink this: Wine and sake pairings start at $55. The sake list is one of the city’s most extensive, but also one of the priciest, with all but a few bottles costing upwards of $80.
When to book: Weekend slots are typically booked up two weeks in advance; weekday ressies should be made at least a week in advance. Credit card required to reserve.
Where to sit: When making your reservation, make sure to insist that you are not seated at one of the tables in the middle of the room near the kitchen door, where the blinding florescent lights will shine in your face throughout the two- or three-hour meal.
Conversation piece: Nakayama is the one of the rare exceptions to the male-dominated world of Japanese cuisine in Los Angeles.