For high-profile restaurants that survive into an uncertain middle age, the passage of time is a fickle and unknowable beast. Wait long enough and your protégés (and copycats) might usurp you in the end, your own enduring influence taken for granted by flighty diners hungry for novelty. But stay the course a little bit longer, as in the case of n/naka, and you just might have the chance of becoming a timeless classic. The chef-owner's 11-year-old modern kaiseki restaurant—of French tire company and Chef's Table fame—remains an indispensable part of the city's fine dining scene.
As of writing, L.A. is awash in expensive tasting menus, an understandable post-pandemic move, given the steadier stream of cash flow and the ability to distill a restaurant team's culinary chops into a single awe-inducing evening. The variety is wonderful for those of certain means or flagrant disregard for personal savings. But if you can only afford one, make it n/naka in Palms. The Japanese restaurant delivers a nontraditional kaiseki meal that (unlike its lackluster follow-up) excites, delights and even soothes across every aspect; in short, it lives up to the hype and the bloodsport level effort involved in snagging a reservation.
What kind of effort? For several weekends in a row, my attempt to get a table for this review plagued me the moment I woke up every Sunday morning—the one day a week that n/naka releases its month-in-advance reservations. It forced me to run late to a friend's baby shower, encompassed the entirety of an extremely stressful move and even roused me from bed while I had Covid to unsuccessfully refresh Tock at 9:59:58am. Then, in the corner of a crowded café while away in San Francisco, I finally, finally secured a table for two. The fact the vaunted meal itself still managed to impress, despite my clear exasperation with the booking process, speaks volumes.
Drawing on lessons learned from the legendary Morihiro Onodera, as well as time cooking at her cousin's ryokan in Japan, Nakayama invokes a mix of contemporary and traditional sensibilities throughout n/naka's ever-changing 13-course tasting menu ($310)—which, unlike many others in this city, also offers an option for vegetarians ($275). Each course invokes the rhythms of a particular season, seamlessly blending classical Japanese cooking with the inherent seasonality of California cuisine. An initial sakizuke (small appetizer) course brought bright yellow sunflowers to the table, for both visual and actual consumption, in what the server mentioned was a nod to both the past, present and near-future seasons.
From start to finish, the courses unfurl in an elegant symphony of contrasting temperature, texture and, of course, taste. The zensai, a multi-part selection of appetizers flanked by flowers and greenery, entices both the eyes and mouth right after the sakizuke, serving as a nod to the meal to come. Even richer courses, like n/naka's signature abalone spaghetti with summer truffles and cod roe, convey a sense of skillful restraint, and the restaurant’s preparation of ultra-fatty A5 Miyazaki Wagyu is hands down the best I've had in this city. Paired with a slice of roasted peach, baby corn arugula and an onion crumble, the marbled cut of beef leans away from pure, unbridled decadence while still managing to deliver maximal impact. By the time the nigiri courses began, signaling the beginning of the end, I felt almost wistful that the meal would soon be over.
Sipping on the post-dinner cup of matcha alongside nibbles of tiny yellow rakugan (sweets made with glutinous flour), I felt the final vestiges of pent-up frustration from the booking process melt away. Though jockeying for a hot table at an eye-poppingly expensive restaurant isn't for everyone—including me, personally—I'd still highly recommend making an exception for n/naka, particularly for those who rarely, if ever, splurge on tasting menus.
The vibe: Minimalist yet inviting thanks to a combination of Japanese design elements and warm lighting. Knowledgeable servers in formal suit jackets with eagle-eyed attention to detail bring a modern approach to the high-touch fine dining experience.
The food: A California kaiseki menu consisting of 13 courses, most of which involve seafood. Highlights as of writing include the zensai selection, the A5 Miyazaki Wagyu and the mushimono—a steamed dish consisting of crab, egg and cherry blossom mochi rice in a light dashi broth.
The drink: A selection of red, white and sparkling wines, sake and a handful of Japanese beers, plus excellent hot teas (sencha and hojicha).
Time Out tip: Make sure to confirm your booking when n/naka reaches out by phone, text or email two days before your reservation, otherwise the restaurant will cancel it.