Obsession is the most salient theme of David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and it’s also the common thread connecting the stories of Chef’s Table, a new Netflix series that turns the camera onto culinary trailblazers like Fäviken’s Magnus Nilsson, Blue Hill’s Dan Barber, and Niki Nakayama of n/naka.
For Nakayama, who first wooed L.A. diners with her artful omakase menus at Inaka and Azami Sushi Café, that obsession finds its muse in the ancient Japanese culinary ritual of kaiseki. At her four-year-old West Los Angeles restaurant, Nakayama’s pristine, 13-course tastings are contemporary odes to the vegetable-centric dining practice anchored in Buddhism.
“There’s a particular format that kaiseki is supposed to follow. After you eat something soft, you want something crispy. After you eat something heavy, you want something light. You are readjusting the palate,” Nakayama explains. “It’s a wonderful way to enjoy a whole meal because there is so much more variety in the way we present each dish.”
At n/naka, this procession might include Bluefin-tuna sashimi followed by steamed chawanmushi laced with snow crab and white truffle, or aji mackerel sushi after a vinegared salad of black tiger shrimp and white sturgeon caviar. Western elements such as pasta and Mexican-inspired salsa also make unusual but welcome appearances on her ever-changing menu.
Kaiseki is a philosophy that looks at life and nature. You have to protect the ingredients.
Nakayama first developed her reverence for the rhythms of kaiseki while working at her family’s ryokan in Japan. But the L.A. native “always enjoyed eating food a little bit too much, even if I can’t say anyone in my family is a gourmand.” Her childhood often revolved around American dishes prepared with Japanese inflections, like hamburger steak served meatloaf style with a demi-glace, or tempura sauce eaten alongside rice.
To modernize the “deep-rooted tradition” of kaiseki, Nakayama embraces the season’s freshest produce, much of which hails from n/naka’s own organic garden. “Kaiseki is a philosophy that looks at life and nature,” says Nakayama. “Your best job as a chef is to showcase how wonderful those natural flavors are. You have to protect the ingredients.”
Vibrant, meticulously integrated ingredients are the hallmark of her cooking. From carbonara-esque abalone pasta, to a dramatic steamed crab head crowned with an egg yolk, here are 10 of the n/naka dishes that highlight Nakayama’s brilliant reimagining of seasonal Japanese cooking.
One day I had all these abalone livers lying around the kitchen and I was wondering what I could do with them. They have a particular taste and bitterness. I started to think of squid ink, and how it adds depth to pasta, so I made an egg-based sauce from them, kind of like a carbonara. We basically sauté pieces of abalone and toss them with the sauce and spaghettini. Then we garnish it with truffles, radish, and pickled cod roe. From that point on it just became one of the dishes we are best known for. (Photo: Garrett Snyder for L.A. Weekly)
I can’t say that it defines me, but it’s something I’ve been making for nearly 20 years. It’s so simple yet so complex; it’s complex in its simplicity. Everything about sushi is defined by perfectly cooked rice. There has to be the perfect amount of rice to match the fish you just sliced. There’s an incredible amount of balance involved and it’s a lot of little steps, like how much soy sauce you use, that are not immediately apparent. I personally love the silver-skin fishes—the sardines, the mackerel—that we pickle with vinegar. They are so representative of the clean, fresh taste of sushi. (Photo: Yelp)
When it’s in season, we take fresh bamboo and boil it down like you would an artichoke. But when we’re done with the cooking we take out the heart and poach it in a broth containing foie gras, so there’s this really rich, flavorful essence. Then we take some parts of the bamboo, trim them and turn them into a sort of risotto, but not so loose. It’s a dish with very Japanese ideas, but it introduces non-Japanese elements. (Photo: Yelp)
Steamed Crab Head
This is a dish I learned of while I was in Japan. It’s a crab head steamed with crabmeat, shiitake mushrooms, black truffle, and dashi broth served in a crab shell with an egg yolk. The egg is not fully cooked, and we grate yuzu on top of it. The best parts are the contrasting elements—it’s rich yet light and subtle; it’s soupy but has texture from all those crab innards. I’d never eaten anything like this in a Japanese restaurant before, and people need to experience it. (Photo: Yelp)
Freshwater Eel Risotto
Unagi is usually served with certain ingredients like burdock root. So we reimagined that pairing in a risotto with underlying flavors of burdock, onion, and mushroom. The decadent part is the seared foie gras on top. (Photo: Chef’s Table)
In Japan, this dish is served cold. We reimagined the pompano by frying it and marinating in a sauce with vinegar, dashi, bell pepper, and onions. We cook it tableside and wrap it in butter lettuce, so it’s sort of like a fish taco. What’s fun about this is if you’re familiar with Japanese cooking, you’re reminded of the flavors in a surprising way. (Photo: Yelp)
Blue Crab Zucchini Blossoms
We take zucchini blossoms and stuff them with blue crab meat, then tempura fry them. We serve them with a coconut-carrot sorbet. The fun part of cooking is that we’ve added a good amount of hot peppers to the sorbet, so it’s initially cold in your mouth, but then it becomes hot. Both elements are in play, going from cold to hot, and it’s interesting. (Photo courtesy n/naka)
When we use the word zakuri, it’s understood as a cutting technique. When we showcase sashimi we call it modern zakuri, because instead of just serving it with wasabi and soy sauce, we introduce other flavors. Right now we have a scallop sashimi that we season with beet and red sorrel and garnish with kiwi and little sprigs of dill. It’s a contemporary version. (Photo: Starchefs)
Shrimp with Yuzu Aioli
Cooking whole shrimp in a light miso-egg yolk sauce is a common Japanese dish. Instead, we butterfly and broil them and serve them so they are not sweet and tangy but rather tart and spicy. There’s a yuzu aioli on top and a red bell pepper salsa on the side. People here [in L.A.] are so used to Mexican and Latin flavors, so combining them with Japanese yuzu is fun. (Photo: Starchefs)
I just love pasta—cooking it, eating it…any time I can put it on the menu, I will. This recipe has oyster, yuzu cream, and chrysanthemum leaf. These are traditional flavor pairings in Japan, we just recreated them to have a bit more complexity and depth through the pasta element. (Photo: KevinEats)