photo credit: Holly Liss
The pursuit of perfection in Japanese culture might be kind of a cliche, but it’s also totally obvious when you actually get off a plane and explore the country itself. Gardens are manicured within an inch of their life, people spend their entire careers making the most perfect toothpick possible. Food is no exception: the seriousness with which people eat a bowl of ramen down a dingy alley in Tokyo is equal to how serious your dad was when he caught you drinking beers when you were 14. And the perfectionism of the dudes making the ramen? That's mom-level serious.
On the LA equivalent of a Tokyo alley (a no-man’s land stretch of Overland in Palms), is LA’s very own temple of Japanese food perfection: N/Naka.
N/Naka was once the kind of under-the-radar spot that we definitely knew about, but also figured was yet another expensive Japanese restaurant in LA. But thanks to our TV overlords Netflix and the first season of Chef’s Table, we, and the rest of the Los Angeles, learned that we should not make such assumptions. What was once a relatively easy table to get, now involves a three-month wait for a 9:15pm reservation on a Tuesday.
photo credit: Holly Liss
But fame hasn’t really changed N/Naka. They haven’t wavered in offering one kind of dinner and one kind of dinner only: a modern take on the very traditional kaiseki. (OK, fine, there’s a vegetarian option, but that barely counts). Kaiseki involves 13 courses served in a mandatory order with no choice involved. You won’t even see a menu at N/Naka, perfectly composed plates will just start arriving. This isn’t in-your-face food—the flavors are so delicate it sort of feels like looking at very conceptual modern art. You might not know exactly what's going on, but you sure do know it looks (and tastes) good. Dishes are explained on arrival by efficient, very formal staff. At some point during the night the chef will come out to say hi—it’s that kind of place.
This is dinner as theatre, and it’s not for everyone. You wouldn’t feel out of place in a suit, and it’s not the spot for a rowdy dinner with your loud friends from college. It is, however, one of the best, most refined, experiences you can have in a restaurant in LA. It will also probably make you reconsider every time you muttered, “Eh, that'll do” about a complicated spreadsheet at 5pm on a Friday. And possibly also a move to Japan.
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Your only option, unless you're vegetarian, and a choice you make when you book. The meal progresses from light to rich, and each element is clearly carefully thought about, probably at a weekly meeting where they discuss how much space there needs to be between each sliver of chive. You’ll start with things like conch topped with foam, and move through sashimi, steamed and fried dishes, a chef’s choice (often an extremely delicious bowl of Japanese-inspired pasta), a meat course (we had the best wagyu of our lives here), and a whole bunch of sushi. You won't know what you're getting until it hits the table, but the menu evolves rather than changes dramatically, depending on what's in season. At $185 this is obviously one of the most expensive meals in town, but the quality and overall experience mean that you won't mind going a month and a half without your second coffee of the day just so you can afford it.