FEAST IN MOD­ERN SUSHI

ARAM GE­SAR TELLS US ABOUT THE ELITE JA­PANESE RESTAU­RANT

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The first time I tried sushi it was in a very unas­sum­ing restau­rant near Sun­set and La Cienega Boule­vard in the late 1970s, and it was great ex­pe­ri­ence. I have not stopped ex­plor­ing Ja­panese cui­sine no mat­ter where I am, whether on the road or at home. My fa­vorite LA spot in the Ja­panese tra­di­tion are Niki Nakayama’s N/Naka Restau­rant, and Takao for Sushi.

N/Naka’s chef and owner Niki Nakayama is a for­mer pro­tégé of the leg­endary Mori­hiro On­odera (once the chef/owner of Mori Sushi), though Nakayama fo­cuses her tal­ent onkaiseki, a clas­si­cal style of Ja­panese cook­ing that dic­tates a spe­cific pro­gres­sion of tex­tures, tem­per­a­tures, tastes and sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents.

Niki Nakayama’s tiny Cul­ver City spot serves a tra­di­tional kaiseki set menu. The 13-course meals are the Ja­panese equiv­a­lent of haute cui­sine, with each course re­volv­ing around a dif­fer­ent tech­nique and in­gre­di­ent (some in­gre­di­ents are steamed, oth­ers are served sashimi-style). N/Naka is an es­sen­tial spot for LA food­ies, and thanks to Nakayama’s ap­pear­ance on the wildly pop­u­lar Net­flix show Chef’s Ta­ble, it’s reached na­tional fame, too.

À la carte is not an op­tion: n/naka of­fers ei­ther a 13-course mod­ern menu ($185) or a 13-course veg­e­tar­ian menu ($160), and both can be paired with wine for $85. The menus change daily and sea­son­ally, but there is al­ways some­thing to de­light in: aglass filled with sea urchin and lob­ster in a bath of chilled dashi, maybe, or a seared diver-har­vested scal­lop cud­dled next to a warm okra pod. It can taketwo or three hours to get through a meal here, but it’s well worth it. Nakayama is one of LA’s best culi­nary ta­lents, and scor­ing a meal at her restau­rant is money well spent.

Born and raised in Los An­ge­les, Chef Niki Nakayama be­gan her ca­reer at Takao restau­rant in Brent­wood, work­ing un­der the guid­ance of Chefs Mori­hiro On­odera and Takao Izu­mida. Com­mit­ted to ex­plor­ing new tech­niques, Nakayama em­barked on a three-year work­ing tour of Ja­pan, sam­pling her way through var­i­ous re­gional fla­vors and im­mers­ing her­self in the es­sen­tials of Ja­panese cui­sine. A for­ma­tive learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence came dur­ing Nakayama’s time work­ing at Shi­rakawa-Ya Ryokan, a Ja­panese inn owned by rel­a­tives. While there, Nakayama

trained un­der Chef Masa Sato in the art of kaiseki, the tra­di­tional Ja­panese culi­nary prac­tice that em­pha­sizes the bal­ance and sea­son­al­ity of a se­ries of dishes.

Upon her re­turn to Los An­ge­les, Nakayama opened her first restau­rant, Azami Sushi Cafe, which quickly be­came known for her omakase menu. Inaka, Nakayama’s am­bi­tious sec­ond ven­ture, func­tioned as a Ja­panese take­out by day and an in­ti­mate eight-course chef’s ta­ble by night. With this project, Nakayama dis­cov­ered that fo­cus­ing on tast­ing menus al­lowed her to do what she en­joys most: cre­at­ing a thought­ful and co­he­sive se­ries of dishes that pro­vides a per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence for each diner. n/naka, a pas­sion project 10 years in the mak­ing, 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.

My fa­vorite sushi sport is Takao restau­rant, where Chef Niki Nakayama be­gan her ca­reer. This Brent­wood omakase restau­rant high­lights a run­down of the best of the ocean’s of­fer­ings, with all the clas­sics choices such as Yel­low­tail, Red Snap­per, and Uni served along­side the likes of Spot Prawn sashimi and Baby Red Snap­per.

Takao Izu­mida, who pre­vi­ously worked at Mat­suhisa, has built a loyal clien­tele rang­ing from lo­cal busi­ness­men to fam­i­lies and celebri­ties at his name­sake up­scale sushi restau­rant. The clean-and-spare store­front fea­tures a small L-shaped sushi bar and some linen-topped ta­bles that pro­vide a qui­eter set­ting for Izu­mida’s tra­di­tional cui­sine with oc­ca­sional in­no­va­tive flour­ishes.

A plate con­tain­ing a se­ries of small com­part­ments might show off fresh ocean del­i­ca­cies like hal­ibut fin, but­tersmooth ankimo and ul­tra-ten­der sautéed abalone, while a plate of new-style sashimi, driz­zled with warm olive oil, is on par with Mat­suhisa’s. There’s toro tartare with caviar, lob­ster tail tem­pura, and grilled crab meat in a creamy and spicy sauce. And watch­ing the pro­pri­etor pa­tiently cook the multi-lay­ered tam­ago (egg omelet sushi) in a spe­cial­ized square skil­let is a treat unto it­self.

Check­out the Net­flix doc­u­men­tary Chef’s Ta­ble on Chef Niki Nakayama and dis­cover this re­mark­able master of Ja­panese cui­sine.

N/Naka, 3455 Over­land Ave, Los An­ge­les, CA 90034, 310.836.6252

Takao, 11656 San Vi­cente Boule­vard, Los An­ge­les, CA 90049-5104, 310.207.8636

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