Early May in Charlotte, NC. The heat was on. Not just because the temps were already hitting 90°F with 800% humidity, but also because my friend and I were attempting to book an ever elusive table at n/naka in LA. Not an easy feat. I was waiting for 1 PM to hit so I could hop on OpenTable and scramble to book a reservation for two. My friend, who actually lives in LA, was waiting to do the same. This was our third attempt – the demand for a table here is no joke. Third time really was the charm – we finally had success. A table for two at 5:45 PM on a Thursday. I booked my flight.
Pro tip: Be sure to have an OpenTable account already made and have a card number saved. In the time it takes to type in your card information, all of the openings will be snatched.
If you’ve never heard of n/naka, the best introduction would be through Chef’s Table season 1, episode 4. In short, n/naka is the creation of Niki Nakayama where she gets funky with traditional kaiseki – a multi-course Japanese dinner. The menu varies every night – and yes, there is a vegetarian option! While I of course got the vegetarian option, my non-veg friend ordered the standard so it was a great opportunity to kind of see what was offered for both.
(A pairing of something common and something unique)
Compari tomato. Tofu. Avocado. Beets.
Paired with: Cuvee Jean Phillipe, Brut, Limoux, France
The insanity of this first course was that the compari tomato was essentially peeled, with such finesse that it appears whole, and stuffed with a creamy, crab-salad-esque mix of tofu and avocado (my friend’s traditional equivalent of the course contained real crab). The crispy tangle on top is where the beets came in. The creamy + crispy texture combo was without a doubt perfect for the bubbly the sommelier chose to pair with this dish. We were given a full pour of the Cuvee Jean Phillipe, and the tone for the evening was set.
(Seasonal ingredients presented as an appetizer)
Kabocha spring roll, Natto, Yamaimo Okra, Wild Mushroom, Peach, Goma Dofu
Paired with: Nosiola, Cesconi, Trentino, Italy/Dewazakura, Izumi Judan, Junmai Ginjo, Yamagata
Round 2 was whimsical – a line up of mini appetizer dishes. When the server dropped off this plate at the table, a glass lid was lifted from the bowl farthest to the left and a billowing plume of steam and savory aroma wafted out. The spring roll was filled with a purple Japanese squash (Kabocha), and the peach sort of jelly on the far right cleansed the palette at the end. A full glass of Nosiola white wine complimented this dish – by this point, it was becoming apparent that we were getting our money’s worth with the $95 wine pairing. These were not tasting portions but 13 full glasses.
(Modern interpretation of sashimi)
Japanese eggplant. Snap pea. Apricot. Pistachio. Lemon Kosho.
Paired with: Pinot blanc, Domaine Schlumberger, Alsace, France
Talk about a modern interpretation of sashimi for the vegetarian. The eggplant was crisp but retained an almost gooey inside, which is impressive to maintain those two different textures given how thinly sliced it was. The charred apricot and pistachio added some awesome earthy and nutty flavors that welcomed the refreshing Pinot blanc from Alsace.
Japanese wild mushroom. Carrot. Dashi.
Paired with: Akagisan, Junmai Ginjo, Gunma, Japan
Let me be clear that every morsel of food I ate at n/naka was awe-inspiring in it’s own way, but there were a handful of absolutely stand-out, jaw-dropping courses throughout this experience that I am still swooning over – and number 4 is one of them. This course was one of a few that were paired with a sake as opposed to a wine. The servers bring the bowl with the mushroom, carrot, and dashi to the table and ask you to remove the lid. They pour, from a glass kettle, the broth over the contents of the bowl. The fresh pour allows the aroma of the broth to waft over you, the diner, and it immediately feels like you’ve been wrapped in a warm blanket of umami. Any mushroom lover would’ve lost their mind. The flavor lived up to the expectation set by the smell. I still dream of this broth, and I don’t expect to have anything quite like it again in my life.
Paired with: Soto, Junmai Daiginjo, Niigata
A variety of seasonal vegetables beautifully sliced and presented, very crisp and clean, made special by the accompanying sauces. On the end, that’s a little ball of brie in a tiny puddle of rich, thick balsamic-esque sauce.
Renkon, Mozzarella cheese, Nori
Paired with: Rosé, Whispering Angel, Chateau d’Esclans, Cotes de Provence, France
We’ll call this million dollar mozz sticks. In reality it was far more enchanting and nuanced, but at the end of the day this course really was some crispy, fried mozzarella. You can see my friend’s equivalent was the sea urchin (Uni) dish that is most notably featured on n/naka’s episode of Chef’s Table. Both of us were excited to see that my version of the course was paired with Whispering Angel rosé, which is actually a wine we both have had a handful of times before. Despite being present in this rather opulent dining experience, Whispering Angel is actually a budget wine – you can easily find it at any grocery/liquor store. I loved that the sommelier included this wine because it reinforces that good wine doesn’t require a hefty price tag. It shows that she really knows what she is doing and doesn’t let wine status fog her tasting judgement.
Corn chawan mushi.
Paired with: Gruner veltliner, Wagram, Austria
Here is a second of the otherworldly courses that continues to sit with me a month later. Essentially a corn chowder, the texture was creamy and the flavor smoky and sweet. My friend said it best, that tasting some of these especially noteworthy dishes was “like seeing new colors”. For that reason, I simply have no more words to attempt to describe this corn chawan mushi to you all. The cut of an Austrian Gruner veltliner was welcome for this thick, custardy chawan mushi.
(Not bound by tradition, the chef’s choice dish)
Spaghettini with Truffles.
Paired with: Sancerre, Loire Valley, France
Fans of Chef’s Table will also recognize this dish from the n/naka episode. Quite unlike the rest of the courses, this truffle pasta brings a little bit of French cuisine to a Japanese kaiseki. Between the truffles and the Sancerre (my favorite white) this course nailed it for me.
Mochi, Oage, Miso on Houba Leaf.
Paired with: Cabernet Sauvignon, Hanna, Alexander Valley, CA
The somm picked out a second bargain wine to showcase for this course. I’ve seen the Hanna label in the aisles of Trader Joe’s, but had not tried it previously so this was a great find for frugal days. You’re probably wondering where the hell is the photo for this – well, as we reach course 9 of 13 (i.e. glass number 9 of wine) and we became more entranced by the food as the night continued, we forgot to keep taking photos – definitely a good thing! But, my people, let me just paint a picture for you: Chewy, savory breaded mochi sitting on top of a large houba leaf, under which a single flame keeps the mochi warm. The mochi pulled apart like the meltiest cheese you could imagine. This presentation was really quite over the top, hence I was too distracted to be taking a picture.
Seasonal vegetable, Green tea su-miso.
Paired with: Yuzu Omoi, Kyoto, Japan
Same as above, no image available. Sorry, folks! Guess you’ll just have to go for yourself.
Seasonal vegetable sushi.
Paired with: : Koshi No Kanbai, Sai, Junmai Ginjo, Niigata
We’re talking nigiri style, seasonal veg sushi including beet, carrot, okra, and tempura mushroom. There was also an avocado maki roll that came along later (per traditional sushi serving – it comes out as it’s ready rather than all at once), but of course, if you haven’t picked up on the trend yet, I did not snag a pic.
Melon Granita, Milk Ice Cream, Ginger Beer.
Kuzu Mochi, Mango Ichimi Sorbet, Yomogi and Young Coconut
Paired with: Tenimenti, CA, Bianca – Brachetto D’Aqui DOCG, Piedmont Italy
Dessert at n/naka is a double-header affair. First, the melon granita with milk ice cream in ginger beer – a very FRESH take on a root beer float. It was so lively and juicy and delicious, ugh! Naturally, no photo taken.
But! The second dessert, and the final course was a textural masterpiece. Everything seemed to have it’s own version of a crispy/crunchy/fizzy texture, but set against a smooth sorbet. The pairing for this dessert delighted me to no end – I had just been reading about Italian wines in The Wine Bible and learned about Brachetto (“ruby fizz”). It sounded fascinating, described as “brilliant ruby red in color…lightly sparkling, very low in alcohol, fresh, and loaded with sweet raspberry and black cherry flavors. It is the perfect ending to a meal, and is one of the few wines in the world that pairs extremely well with chocolate” – who wouldn’t want to try a wine like this? The somm presented the bottle and I had such an enthusiastic reaction, clapping my hands like a lunatic. It was DELICIOUS. Literally, delicious. Sparkling black cherry grape juice – just remembering it makes me want more.
And alas, the meal ended. Niki came out from the kitchen to talk to us, and this time we made sure to get a photo with the insanely talented and beautiful and strong celeb chef Niki Nakayama. The only thing to keep us from having severe post-dining depression was the fact that we had reservations at Osteria Mozza for the next night (but after that, the PDD was hard hitting).
If you haven’t already, definitely check out the Niki’s Chef’s Table episode and get your OpenTable account ready to reserve your spot at n/naka (three months out!).