FEAST IN MODERN SUSHI
ARAM GESAR TELLS US ABOUT THE ELITE JAPANESE RESTAURANT
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