The Japanese restaurant n/naka, located at 3455 S. Overland Ave. in the Palms area of Los Angeles, was named one of the world’s 30 best eateries in a list released Aug. 20 by Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine.
For the first time ever, the two magazines have partnered on an ambitious and exciting new platform — curated by one anonymous critic, who journeyed around the world to discover the best restaurants that travelers must visit right now. As much about the destinations as it is about the food, this list aims to reflect the most vibrant aspects of each location it represents, capturing dining experiences that fully express the culture of each country, city, or region.
The list was curated by James Beard Award-winning writer Besha Rodell, who has been reporting on food and culture for almost two decades, in multiple cities and across two continents. Currently the dining critic for The New York Times’ Australia bureau, Rodell accepted recommendations from a global panel of experts across the hospitality and restaurant industries made up of the magazines’ editors and 22 noteworthy culinary personalities.
Over four months, she visited 81 restaurants in 24 countries and across six continents, stayed in 37 hotels, spent 279 hours in the air, and traveled more than 100,000 miles to arrive at the list of 30 restaurants.
Of n/naka, Rodell wrote: “I said it the first time I ate at n/naka more than five years ago, and I’ll say it again now: Meals at Niki Nakayama’s small, elegant restaurant unfold like poetry, flavors and dishes acting as phrases and stanzas in one long, lyrical, and utterly profound experience.
“Nakayama was born and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles but spent years in Japan training in the art of kaiseki, the traditional, multi-course Japanese style of dining that focuses on seasonality and ritual. In 2011 she opened n/naka in an unmarked building on an unremarkable stretch of road in Palms, a mostly residential neighborhood in West Los Angeles. There, along with her sous chef and wife Carole Iida-Nakayama, Nakayama presents an intensely personal version of kaiseki, one that is almost as Californian as it is Japanese.
“Over 12 courses, diners move through a series of complex dishes that showcase seasonal Southern Californian ingredients assembled in elaborate and beautiful combinations. Raw wild sea bream comes curled on the plate, intertwined with celtuce, Jade Beauty green tomato, Buddha’s hand citron, and hibiscus and begonia flowers, and seasoned lightly with ume ponzu. Traditional sashimi is followed by a grilled dish of Spanish mackerel with kelp and black garlic oil, then a steamed dish of sweet shrimp with Santa Barbara uni.
“Nakayama and her staff practice omotenashi, a style of service that places empathy above all else. N/naka exudes a quiet welcome that touches every aspect of the meal, from when you’re greeted by name at the door to the moment just before you leave when Nakayama appears at your table to sincerely thank you for visiting.
“Almost all of the restaurants selected for this list are highly representative of their locations, a way of tasting the true nature of a place through its dining. So why, in Los Angeles, choose a restaurant that looks to Japan for much of its inspiration?
“Because L.A.’s greatest asset is its diversity and its cultivation of culture that blurs the lines of influence and origin and arrives at something wholly new. N/naka is not a restaurant that would exist anywhere else: a chef born in Southern California but trained in Japan, working in a format traditionally reserved for men, growing her own produce and paying homage to the incredible edible bounty that’s possible in this specific part of the world.”
The restaurant’s website includes this explanation of its philosophy: “The whole of a meal is as important as the sum of its parts. At n/naka, we are devoted to providing a unique and satisfying dining experience through our interpretation of kaiseki. This traditional Japanese culinary art form reflects the ever-changing rhythms of the earth by taking the freshest seasonal ingredients and presenting them in their most natural states.
“Using the very best ingredients we have access to is true kaiseki; we proudly serve vegetables from our own organic garden built and maintained by our friends at Farmscape Gardens. We take great care in preparing a beautiful plate and believe that the more involvement we put into a meal — no shortcuts — the more connected we feel to the food and to your experience of it.
“Through a meaningful balance of both traditional and modern techniques, Chef Niki Nakayama is committed to creating a meal that will engage your attention — it’s about enjoying the moment, the current offerings of the season, and ultimately, the food in front of you.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Nakayama began her career at the renowned Takao restaurant in Brentwood, working under the guidance of esteemed chef Takao Izumida. Committed to exploring new techniques, she embarked on a three-year working tour throughout Japan, sampling her way through different regional flavors and immersing herself in the essentials of Japanese cuisine, both traditional and cutting-edge.
While working at Shirakawa-Ya Ryokan, a Japanese inn owned by relatives, Nakayama trained under chef Masa Sato in the art of kaiseki, the traditional Japanese culinary practice that emphasizes the balance and seasonality of a dish.
Upon her return to Los Angeles, Nakayama opened her first restaurant, Azami Sushi Cafe, which quickly became known for her popular omakase menu. Azami was an immediate L.A. staple, touted by Zagat and The Los Angeles Times in addition to earning Citysearch’s “Best of Sushi” distinction in 2006.
Inaka, Nakayama’s ambitious second venture, functioned as a gourmet Japanese take-out by day and an intimate eight-course chef’s table by night. Focusing on tasting menus allowed her to do what she enjoys — and thrives in — most: creating a thoughtful and cohesive series of dishes that provides a personal experience for each diner.
N/naka has been ten years in the making and is the expansion of Nakayama’s previous endeavors, applying the artistic and technical notions of kaiseki to create an ever-evolving seasonal narrative within each meal.
Iida-Nakayama’s parents immigrated to California from Japan and opened the restaurant Mako Sushi. Her childhood was spent washing dishes and being around Japanese food. She graduated from UCLA and never thought she would end up following in her parents’ footsteps. But after several years as a project manager for various corporations, she knew she was destined to do something more meaningful with her life. The opportunity to work alongside her parents again at a new restaurant presented itself, so she took a leap of faith and the rest is history.
In August 2012, Iida-Nakayama joined the n/naka team. Her goal at n/naka is to execute Nakayama’s vision into an emotionally moving dining experience for the guests and to be her wife’s pillar of support. Her innovations at n/naka have profoundly changed the way the kitchen runs and how the food appears for the guests.
Iida-Nakayama hopes to continue growing as a chef and as a human being and to always cook with heart. She dreams of adding an herb garden to the restaurant, converting the space into a complete eco-friendly building, and helping the community through cooking.
The n-naka team also includes general manager Jeffry Undiarto and pastry chef Gemma Matsuyama.
For more information, visit http://n-naka.com.
Photos by ZEN SEKIZAWA