LAReview

photo credit: Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image
8.4

N/Soto

$$$$

4566 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles
View WebsiteEarn 3X Points

You might know N/Naka as the fine dining kaiseki spot that 1) was featured on Chef’s Table, 2) serves an incredible tasting menu that will cost you several hundred dollars per head, and 3) requires reservations that must be booked at least a month in advance. With all that in mind, you could describe N/Soto, the izakaya in Mid-City from the same chefs, as the more casual cousin of N/Naka—the service is less formal, the a la carte menu is less expensive, and it’s far easier to nab a table.

However, much like if we stood next to Danny DeVito and said we were tall, that description is really only true by comparison. By any reasonable standard, N/Soto is not particularly causal nor particularly cheap, but it does serve sublime, highly refined Japanese food in a cool and comfortable space. And since it's unlikely you'll be booking N/Naka anytime soon, it’s a great way to sample the same level of sophistication at a substantially reduced cost.

N/Soto review image

Ducking through the noren curtains flapping against the restaurant's vine-covered facade along Washington Blvd. feels like being let in on a cool little secret. Lights are lowered to a perpetual dim. Some mix of indie, jazz, and/or indie jazz plays on the sound system. There's so much white oak everywhere, you'd think the designers got a great deal at the blonde wood factory, and there's a covered patio out back that exudes tranquility. Nobody rushes you as you pick at a bowl of salted black edamame while scanning the cocktail list. Servers practically whisper.

The large, 50-odd item menu at N/Soto is made up of nine sections broken out by cooking method. About half are izakaya standards done straight up—chicken karaage, cucumber and seaweed salad, blue crab hand rolls, and grilled skewers—while the remainder are more distinct, cheffy creations. Among the latter group, there are some clear winners: chewy mochi flatbread with a side of eggplant dip and salted creme fraiche, miso-slathered bone marrow with pickled onions, and a miniature, one-bite flavor bomb of minced toro and caviar on sushi rice. 

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But it’s a testament to the kitchen’s skill that even some of the more basic-sounding dishes elicit loud wows too, from the perfect ruby cubes of baby bluefin tuna tossed with pickled wasabi stems, to steamed clams swimming in an oceanic dashi broth, to basically anything the kitchen decides to fry in crispy, lighter-than-air tempura batter.

The best way to think about N/Soto is like one of those old-timey optical illusions with the caption “young girl or old woman?”—it all depends on your perspective. Although billed as an izakaya, it doesn’t have much in common with beer-swilling pubs like ‎Izakaya Hachi in Torrance or Honda-Ya in Little Tokyo, or even neighborhood Japanese spots like Tsubaki and Hakata Izakaya Hero. It’s more suited for celebratory dinners, or splashy date nights where, with a round or two of drinks and enough plates to make a meal, you’ll spend close to $150 per person. That’s far from casual, but so is the polished, high-level dining experience that this restaurant is putting out.

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Food Rundown

Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image

Hokkaido Scallop Sashimi

Of the five or so sashimi dishes on the menu, this scallop dish is the coolest looking. Slices of scallop and tomato are fanned in a circle like playing cards, dabbed with ume vinagrette, and decorated with tiny nubs of pickled cauliflower and pumpkin seeds. Unfortunately, the flavors don’t really mesh and the dish ends up looking better than it tastes. Go with one of the more traditional sashimi options for a raw fish fix.

Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image

Toro Osetra Nigiri

We usually skip the sushi and handrolls at N/Soto, simply because they don't stand out much from what you’d find at most decent sushi bars, and there's too much else to try anyway. We make an exception, though, for the toro osetra nigiri: a nugget of warm rice topped with chopped fatty tuna, wasabi, red onion, and a thimbleful of caviar. At $21 for two pieces, it’s not cheap, but it’s the perfect ultra-luxurious appetizer condensed into a single, stunning bite.

Jakob Layman

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Kushiyaki

Simple and gratifying, these char-kissed skewers showcase the timeless Japanese art of grilling tasty things on sticks. There’s nothing groundbreaking happening here, but ordering a few is a delightful way to fill out your dinner. Favorites include the juicy bacon-wrapped tomatoes, unagi dotted with yuzu kosho, and the beef shoulder with wasabi—just be careful not to go overboard, as the price per stick adds up fast.

Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image

Geso Karaage

They fry a lot of things well at N/Soto. The menu offers several kinds of tempura, which might include seasonal items like baby corn, maitake mushroom, and squash blossoms, along with a respectable if pretty standard chicken karaage. But what really blew us away were the crisp-tender fried squid legs with chili mayo. If that doesn’t sound exciting, it’s probably because you’ve only been in toxic squid relationships in the past, and you were just waiting for the right squid (this one) to come into your life. Or at least that’s what our therapist told us.

Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image

Sakamushi Clams

If they didn’t hit the table at the approximate temperature of the sun, these sake-steamed clams cooked in a clay donabe would have been consumed in seconds (yes, the roof of our mouth has healed, thanks for asking). The clams themselves are plump and sweet, but the headliner is the delicate, complex, garlicky dashi broth at the bottom of the bowl.

Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image

Miso-Baked Bone Marrow

Much like the person who witnessed the world’s first unicycle ride, we were skeptical when we first saw this dish in action: the table next to us took turns scooping jiggly blobs of bone marrow onto a palm-sized rice ball, awkwardly attempting a bite without the whole thing falling apart. But then we gave it a try and were converted. The roasted, miso-glazed bone marrow is rich and silky, and the smoky grilled rice ball hides a little pop of sour plum paste at its center. Figuring out how to eat this dish gracefully is a personal journey, but trust that the destination is worth it.

Jakob Layman

N/Soto review image

Cocktails

No izakaya experience would be complete without a little drinky-drink on the side, and in the case of N/Soto, it’s the unique list of cocktails that we gravitate toward first. Though they shift slightly with the seasons, the best ones tend to highlight sake and shochu as well as fortified wines, making them quite refreshing and lower in ABV. If you see one that includes kakigori, go for it—the bar staff will whip out an antique shaved ice machine and top your drink with fruit-flavored snow cranked to order.

Coffee Budino

It’s a good thing we didn’t know coffee jello existed when we were kids, because we’d have probably never slept. This elegant and not-too-sweet dessert—basically a mashup between Japanese-style coffee jelly and the famed butterscotch budino at Osteria Mozza—is the best way to end a meal here. Along with caffeinated cubes of gelatin, it’s got creamy coffee pudding, non-dairy whipped cream, and a superb sweet-salty miso butterscotch sauce.

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