Wednesday, January 30, 2013

N/Naka: eat/give/hope Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Benefit Dinner

As something that is a necessity for survival, food and consumption in its basest form is primal instinct.  At the other extreme are chefs who perhaps over-intellectualize in attempt to elevate the culinary arts.  Somewhere around the pivot point, in perfect balance - is N/Naka. Chef Niki Nakayama takes the Japanese tradition of kaiseki (seasonal small exquisite dishes in perfect balance) and seeks to create an experience, a 'narrative', for her guests that is artistic and accessible.

I'd always wanted to experience N/Naka, but they offer tasting menus only, and the lowest priced one that isn't vegetarian costs $110 - though 9-courses are involved, it was still out of my price range.  Then N/Naka announced that they were doing a series of Sunday dinners at $55, 6-courses, to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and I knew that was divine intervention: finally a price point I can afford, and all to go towards a good cause.  Yes, dineLA is still happening, and I'm still recovering from a long holiday trip - but there was no way I was going to miss this event at N/Naka. 

As soon as my friend Teach and I set foot in the space, we fell in love with it immediately - it was small and cozy with a mere handful of tables - but had a very serene, soothing vibe with minimal but tasteful decor, including a zen pebble garden in the middle of each table.
What's clear from the menu for the night, is the thought Chef Nakayama puts into her concept and execution - while at the same time taking care to make everything very accessible and enjoyable. It's not about ego or show-womanship here, but genuine passion that goes out with each plate.  The first course, Sakizuke is described as "(a pairing of something common and someting unique) bigeye tuna, avocado dashi, jalapeno, cilantro, tempura soy paper".  Fish and avocado are a common match in sushi, but this execution is refreshing and new - I don't want to use the word 'deconstruct' which is implicitly obnoxious and that is not what Chef Nakayama's food is about, but this is sort of a new way of preparing and pulling together elements normally found in a sushi roll.  I liked the balance of different textures flaky, creamy, crunchy, density (fish) and levity (accoutrements) and the bit of heat and herbaceousness added by the jalapeno and cilantro. A nice tease for the rest of the meal.
Zensai: (main seasonal ingredient presented as an appetizer) "san ten mori" pan seared beef teres major, mixed baby greens, miso pepper dressing; baked fanny bay oyster, sesame aioli; hamachi carpaccio, sweet sesame ponzu.  Loved every bite on this plate - I normally like my oysters naked so I can taste pure ocean in them, but the sesame aioli was light enough in flavor and consistency that it worked with the oyster, and did not overwhelm it  Loved the brush of wasabi aioli to go with the beef as well - the Japanese take on horseradish cream served the American way with steak.
Mushimono/Agemono: (steamed dish/fried dish) steamed lobster chawanmushi, black prince tomato, lobster glaze; vegetable "kaki-age" tempura with gobo, maitake, carrots and onions. You know that scene in Runaway Bride where Richard Gere's character accuses Julia Roberts' of not knowing who she is, so much so that she doesn't even know what kind of eggs she likes, and so she spends a morning with plates of every possible preparation of egg to taste test until she can determine which is her favorite?  Yeah so that's not me at all.  I KNOW I love eggs in multiple forms, in this order: 63 degree, soft boiled, scrambled, AND as chawanmushi (steamed). I haven't encountered too many places that serve it steamed (FarmShop, Torafuku, The Coop pop-up, and now N/Naka are the only ones I know...)

So I was excited to see N/Naka serve this.  And of course with their own touch - topped with rich tomato based lobster sauce and a tender, juicy piece of the crustacean, plus crumbled pieces of what I thought was ground beef for textural contrast.  Here's a gratuitous close up of the steamed egg - super light and smooth.  I loved the tempura on the side too, as a sort of foil for the smoothness and levity of the chawanmushi.  Everything in balance. I'd read that Chef Niki grows her own vegetables in her organic garden - and though not a big fan of veggies in general, preferring seafood or better quality cuts of meat, I appreciated the freshness of the veggies used for the tempura, which came through clearly even past the batter.
Shiizakana: (chef's choice dish not bound by tradition) mentaiko pasta with italian summer truffles.  I love Japanese style pasta, which is generally much lighter on sauce and sweeter.  Chef Nakayama breaks tradition beyond the Japanese style of handling pasta, by adding mentaiko (marinated pollock roe), usually served in rice balls or on its own as a side dish, into the sauce for the pasta. Then topping it with Italian summer truffles so fragrant it turned heads the minute it left the kitchen.  So in a way, a sort of Japanese meets Italian interpretation of 'surf and turf', with fish and fungi instead of traditional proteins, in a bowl. One of my favorite dishes of the night.
Shokuji: (rice dish- sushi) "chirashi-zushi" a beautiful jewelry box-like presentation of gems from the sea.  There is nothing ground breaking about this chirashi course - just amazing cuts of incredibly fresh and flavorful fish over rice.  But as sushi lovers will tell you, the rice is just as important as the fish - and N/Naka gets a perfect 10 for the quality of their rice - it's at a perfect consistency where each grain is distinct but meld into a coherent whole.  Perfectly balanced sweetness with just a little bite from mixed in vinegar.  Fresh grated wasabi on a shiso leaf takes this over the top as possibly the best affordable chirashi I've ever tasted in LA (i.e. Urasawa and others of that several hundred $$$ per head class will certainly beat this, but I wouldn't know as that's completely not affordable for me)
Mizumono: (dessert): sesame panna cotta, okinawan black sugar syrup, black sesame paste, sesame tuille.  A gorgeous and dynamic, yet very simple dessert gave a photogenic finish to the fantastic meal.
Chef Nakayama is offering two more of these benefit dinners, Sunday February 3rd and 10th.  At last check she is already completely booked, with long waiting lists, but you can always try your luck for cancellations or see if she will offer more dates.
Can't make it to dinner but still want to make a donation?  Go to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society site or give to Team in Training.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 6 bites
Originality - 6 bites
Ambience - 6 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark for this special menu)
Probability of return visit - 100% 


3455 S. Overland Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90034 
Ph: 310.836.6252

Parking: Valet $5 at restaurant, or street parking (hard to find at dinnertime, check signs)


N/Naka on Urbanspoon

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