n/naka (Los Angeles, CA)

n/naka
3455 Overland Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Dining date: 7/15/14

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n/naka opened three years ago in a quiet corner of Palms on the westside. The restaurant and its modern take on the Japanese kaiseki meal, has focused on creating a very precise multi-course meal with seasonal ingredients. Many of those ingredients are grown by chef Niki Nakayama herself in her own garden. I still feel the restaurant is somewhat under the radar; sure, Jonathan Gold has continually mentioned the restaurant in high regard (it was #18 in his 2014 best restaurants list), but I don’t feel like it’s consistently being considered with other high-end restaurants in LA.

While common in Japan, n/naka’s kaiseki-based menu is pretty unique in LA. It’s a carefully-scripted tasting menu often featuring 10+ small plates. Seasonal ingredients (usually simply prepared) are highlighted, and service and plating/decor are as much a part of a meal as the food. The thirteen course menu weighs in at $165 ($150 vegetarian) making n/naka one of the most expensive restaurants in the city (there used to be a slimmed down chefs’ tasting for $110).

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Yamakase (Los Angeles, CA)

Yamakase
10422 National Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90034
Dining date: 4/8/14

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Yamakase has been on my radar since I first heard about it a couple of years ago. The restaurant is an invitation-only (request one here) “secret” Japanese spot serving high-end Japanese. The meal may be best described as kaiseki, but it’s not really; it’s moreso a progression of sushi/sashimi and small plates of whatever the chef wants to serve. The courses are definitely Japanese-centric but there are a handful with clear Western influences. As expected, the meal is omakase-only with around 20-25 courses; the price varies somewhere in the low $200s. It’s a BYOB only affair.

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The chef here is Kiyoshiro Yamamoto (Yama-san) formerly of Santa Monica’s The Hump which closed amidst a ton of controversy. Yama-san is a one-man show and the ten-seat bar curves around the kitchen giving everyone a full view of the preparation of the meal from start to finish. For the food-enthused, it’s as much a show as a meal. On this evening, Yama-san began by expertly breaking down a huge bluefin tuna loin, proceeded to prepare two Japanese hairy crabs for the steamer, then grated fresh wasabi root and shaved some truffles. It promised to be an exciting meal even before the first bite.

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RyuGin (Tokyo, Japan) (2)

RyuGin
Side Roppongi Bldg, 1st Floor
7-17-24 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032
Dining date: 11/20/12

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My first meal at RyuGin was one of the best meals in 2012. Towards the end of that meal, I was told that they store the menus of all of the diners they seat so that they can ensure a unique meal each time. The promise of a completely different meal towards the end of my trip lingered in the back of my mind until I decided to make it my final dinner in Japan.

The restaurant, a Michelin three-star ranked #28 on the 2012 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, is a ‘modern kaiseki’ establishment, where chef Seiji Yamamoto blends Western influences into a traditional Japanese meal. With strong accolades from the Western world, the customer base does seem to largely be foreign (English-friendly!), though it was mostly locals on this Tuesday evening.

The service was some of the best I had seen anywhere in Tokyo, with all of the servers wearing an earbud in one ear, staying in constant contact with the kitchen and rest of waitstaff. In both of my visits, the timing and service was impeccable.

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Sake service was awesome with no less than 20 glasses to choose from. Sweet!

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Hot Turtle Tofu with Green Onion Oil

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The meal began with my first (and only) taste of turtle during the entire trip. Slightly chewy yet tender pieces of turtle sat in a silky chawanmushi-like custard, topped with a brightness from the green onion oil.

Fried Shirako

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Shirako (cod milt) is in season; here it was delicately fried atop a bed of Rice Krispies. Dare I say it had a very creamy interior upon the first bite, oozing out of its crispy shell. It was kind of too hot, burning my mouth, so much of the flavor was lost.

Monkfish Liver in White Miso Sauce with Seasonal Vegetables

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This is a variation of a dish that has been prepared since the restaurant opened nine years ago. The sweet, creamy monkfish liver was delicious, complemented by the savory miso and slight heat of Japanese mustard. Crispy scallion and veggies countered some of the heat and richness of the dish.

Matsuba Crab Served in Crab Broth

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This was a special kind of crab, sold individually tagged to ensure authenticity. Commonly known as snow crab in America, it had a very subtle sweetness and flavor, sitting in a shellfish broth made of its own shell. Wilted cabbage completed each warm and comforting bite.

Assorted Sashimi

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The duo of sashimi this evening was a seared Spanish mackerel with ponzu and a lobster with sea urchin sauce. The rich, luscious still-raw mackerel was pretty tasty, while the seared skin provided a little smokiness and texture. Sweet, spongy lobster was even better with a pureed uni sauce and a touch of wasabi – a perfect combination of flavors.

Thorn Head Fish Grilled on Charcoal then Simmered with Eggplant

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The thorn head fish, stuffed with eggplant then grilled and simmered, was rich in flavor and cooked pretty well. A sauce made of fish broth and ginger was a nice complement, while finely sliced gobo (burdock root) provided a fresh crunch.

Soft Sea Eel and Tofu Bowl

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A tofu ‘meatball,’ cod roe and sea eel were the focal points of this dish. I thought the textures were interesting, but found the flavors to be too subtle to really distinguish. Some mizuna (Japanese greens) provided a little bit of brightness, but couldn’t lift up this dish.

Wagyu Beef Filet Grilled on Charcoal with Assorted Vegetables

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Next was this extraordinary dish, which made it to my Top Dishes of 2012 post. Here, the over-the-top fattiness of Japanese wagyu was in the form of relatively lean filet mignon; the opposites created a fantastic middle-ground. The result was something that was extremely tender, yet also very juicy and succulent. Crisp veggies provided just a little bit of textural crunch to lighten things up a bit. So good!

Rice Topped with Chinese Cabbage and Sea Bream Simmered with Sansho Pepper

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This rice bowl was sort of lesson in textures with an assortment of crispy diced vegetables, chewy rice, and tender chunks of both fresh and dried fish. It was a good one, though not nearly as memorable as the unagi-don of the previous visit.

Rice with Red Bean and Sea Bream over Charcoal

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The final savory course was an ‘extra’ from the kitchen. I was kind of disappointed to find this pretty similar to the previous dish, and also happened to be lacking in as much flavor. Add to it the fact that the sea bream had some bones, and this was a disappointment.

With the savory courses completed, a couple of desserts came next.

Candy Tangerine

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This first sweet course was similar to the grape dish I had in my last visit. A cold, airy yogurt powder with a pop rocks texture was molded and shaped inside a tangerine shell; when cracked, it was topped with a warm tangerine jam. The opposing temperatures and textures contrasted in a pretty yummy sweet, tangerine flavor.

Roppongi Pudding

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I really liked this one, a jar of steamed pudding with a rich, caramel bottom. Pretty simple I guess, but delicious. Even better with a bowl of bitter matcha tea.

Matcha

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While my first meal was a tale of highs after highs, I found this one to have more ups-and-downs. Maybe my taste buds had gotten spoiled during my trip, but my expectations had also increased given the success of the first meal. Still, the food at RyuGin was yummy, interesting and executed pretty well. Highlights included the wagyu beef filet (so good!), crab, lobster-uni sashimi, and both desserts. I don’t hesitate in recommending RyuGin highly during any visit to Tokyo.

Kohaku (Tokyo, Japan)

Kohaku
3-4 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 162-0825
Dining date: 11/15/12

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Kohaku is the younger sibling restaurant to three-star kaiseki restaurant Ishikawa. Chef Koji Koizumi worked under Ishikawa for years, becoming his right-hand man. When Ishikawa decided to move his restaurant, it was time for Koizumi to take over the old space to create something of his own. Compared to Ishikawa, Kohaku is known for incorporating more modern Western ingredients into his dinners, something that has helped him garner two Michelin stars of his own.

The restaurant is located in the Kagurazaka part of Tokyo, a neighborhood filled with hilly streets, winding roads and dark alleys. The charming entrance of Kohaku was in one of these dark alleys; we actually had to backtrack a few times to find it.

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Three fixed menus were available at ¥15,000, ¥17,000 and ¥20,000. The middle tier introduced fugu/blowfish into the mix, something I really wanted to try on this trip, so we went with that one.

As with all of the other kaiseki restaurants I’d been to, great care is demonstrated in sake service.

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Chawanmushi with Ginkgo Nuts, Shiitake Mushroom and Lotus Root

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The meal began with a warm, comforting light custard, perfumed with earthy notes from the nuts and mushrooms. The lotus root provided a little bit of textural contrast to the smooth custard.

Monkfish Liver and Eggplant with White Miso Sauce

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I loved this ankimo, cool creamy and delicious. Lightly smoked eggplant and a subtly sweet miso complemented the liver nicely.

Steamed Rice topped with Scallop and Seaweed Sauce

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The rice, called ‘mochi rice,’ was very glutinous, topped with a pretty delicious seaweed sauce. The scallop was seared on one side, still mostly raw, and its sweetness really went well with the seaweed sauce.

Snow Crab Dumpling and Turnip

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As this was brought to the table, the server said the dumpling was made with very little binder, maximizing the crab flavor. I enjoyed the sweet chunks of crab, which sat in a lightly smoky dashi. The turnips were also pretty sweet and tender.

Spanish Mackerel Sashimi

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For the next course, the server explained that this sawara, a type of Spanish Mackerel, is a very fatty fish in the winter. It was served with bright shiso, a classic combination.

Oyster and Chestnut with Truffle Sauce

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I love fried oysters so I was very excited for this one, especially since shaved truffles were on top. The oysters were perfect, with a delectable crunch and burst of juicy meat on the inside. The truffle sauce, made with grated truffle, dashi, and milk was exceptional having a great umami burst and truffle essence. So good.

Blowfish, Chinese Cabbage and Leek with Chili Sauce

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This would be my first time ever having the potentially dangerous blowfish, or fugu. A mix of various parts of the fish, including the skin, was served with a citrusy ponzu and green onions. I found the fish itself to be rather light and mild in flavor, though with interesting textures, taking on the flavors of its accompaniments.

Kinme Snapper, Leek, Turnip and Garland Chrysanthemum

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A light dashi soup filled with snapper, baby leeks and turnip was next. Warm and comforting, the soup had a subtle floral flavor and the fish was juicy and moist.

For the next course, two options were available for the rice bowl. We ordered one of each, both coming with red miso and Japanese pickles.

Steamed Rice topped with Fresh Salmon Roe

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Steamed Rice topped with Broiled Duck

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Both of these were executed well, though nothing special. Simply prepared, I thought the duck didn’t have quite as much flavor as there could’ve been, and I found it underseasoned as well.

Black Sugar Jelly, Black Soybean, Cream Cheese, and Rum Sherbet with Soup

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Lastly, we were served this interesting dessert; looking at the ingredients, I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. I actually really enjoyed it between the creamy sweetness of the cheese and sugar jelly and slight bite of the rum sherbet. Creamy, sweet soybeans were a nice touch too.

I really enjoyed this meal at Kohaku. Some of the dishes were excellent (the fried oyster was outstanding) and the service was impeccable. While the meal had some modern/Western touches, it seemed to still be very steeped in traditional kaiseki dining. I easily enjoyed this meal more than other two-star kaiseki options like Ginza Okuda and Ginza Toyoda, but RyuGin is still the standard-bearer for me.

Ginza Toyoda (Tokyo, Japan)

Ginza Toyoda
La Vialle Ginza Bldg 2F
7-5-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Dining date: 11/10/12

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I made it a point to try a few kaiseki meals while in Japan – Ginza Toyoda would be my third experience of the trip. The restaurant came to my attention via the Tokyo Michelin Guide (2 stars) and the fact that it has an English version of its website…often a good indication that some English was spoken.

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The restaurant is located on the second floor of the La Vialle Building on a small, narrow street in Ginza, It was walking distance from my apartment, making it an ideal spot for a lunch meal. Speaking of lunch,  three set menus were available at ¥5,000, ¥7,000 and ¥10,000. I went right in the middle.

Like Ginza Okuda (where I dined the previous week), Ginza Toyoda serves a pretty traditional, ever-changing kaiseki meal following a careful progression of dishes.

sea eel, sea urchin, greens, dashi jelly

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The first dish featured a tender, meaty piece of eel with a smooth and cold piece of uni. Slightly bitter greens contrasted the sweet seafood, while a cool dashi jelly added some tasty depth.

meatball, mochi, onion, dashi

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The texture of the meatball was interesting…kind of silky (fatty?) and soft in texture, but I liked the flavor. I think it was pork. I liked the sweetness of the onion to go along with it, but didn’t care for the chewy mochi.

red snapper, chutoro, mackerel sashimi

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A beautiful sashimi plate came next. The fish tasted as good as it looked, with the fatty chutoro being my favorite. The red snapper was dipped in ponzu, while the tuna and mackerel came with soy sauce.

baked cod with mayonnaise

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A meaty, dense cod was next – I thought it was cooked pretty well leaving pretty moist flesh. The baked on mayonnaise provided just a little more moisture and flavor.

bottarga

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While I was still working on the cod course, a random slice of cured fish roe found its way onto my plate. No complaints here with its sort of gelatinous texture and delicate salty, fishy flavor.

daikon, scallops, greens, dashi

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A tender chunk daikon and slices of scallops sat in a warm dashi broth. I thought one of the scallop pieces was overcooked (the other one was fine), and I’m not sure all of the flavors came together as hoped.

red snapper rice bowl; red miso

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Next, a large pot of rice with red snapper was brought to the counter. After being displayed, the contents were mixed and scooped into individual (ended up being three) servings. I thought this was pretty tasty, with tender chunks of the snapper perfuming the rice and thinly sliced scallions providing a little sweetness. A hearty, earthy red miso was a traditional accompaniment.

grape jelly

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Lastly, dessert was in the form of this in-season grape jelly. I really liked the texture – soft but yet almost chewy – and the grape was pretty tasty too.

I liked this kaiseki lunch moreso than the one at Ginza Okuda, especially considering it was half the price. However, similar to that meal, I wasn’t overly impressed here. We had some good dishes but nothing particularly memorable…and some just seemed overly simple (maybe I just didn’t understand them). While not quite as traditional, RyuGin remained a clear-cut favorite for kaiseki dining.

Some of the main streets in Ginza are closed to vehicular traffic on the weekend, making it an ideal place for an after-lunch stroll.

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Ginza Okuda (Tokyo, Japan)

Ginza Okuda
Carioca Building B1
5-4-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 104-0061
Dining date: 11/3/12

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Japanese kaiseki meals are akin to Western high-end dining in that there are typically a large number of small courses. Plating is thoughtful and intricate, and the food is highly seasonal. Like a sushi bar, counter-dining is prevalent, allowing the diner a front-row seat into the action. There aren’t too many restaurants in Los Angeles that serve a meal like this; the first half of Urasawa and n\naka are the only ones that come to mind (but I am sure there are others). However, these are more modern interpretations of a kaiseki meal – in Tokyo I sought out some of the more traditional ones.

Chef Toru Okuda has two restaurants in the Ginza area of Tokyo (in the same building actually), both highly acclaimed. He established his reputation at his first restaurant (Kojyu opened in 2003) and opened up Ginza Okuda last year. I had read that he cooks at the Michelin two-star Ginza Okuda during lunch service and heads to three-star Kojyu for dinner service.

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I opted go to Ginza Okuda for lunch since I figured Okuda-san would be there, and it was a relatively more reasonable way to go price-wise. Three set menus were available at ¥10,000, ¥15,000 and ¥20,000 – I went for the middle one. Okuda-san was not around this afternoon but I was placed in the capable hands of Shun Miyahara for the duration of the meal. Coincidentally, his English was quite good.

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crab, seaweed, vinegar jelly

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The first dish featured a generous portion of cool, sweet crab bathed in a vinegar jelly. Luckily, the jelly wasn’t too tart or acidic, balancing out the sweetness of the shellfish. Seaweed and okra provided the greens.

fried matsutake mushroom, sudachi, sea salt

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Fried matsutake mushrooms arrived next. It was fried to a crisp, leaving a tender earthy mushroom; sudachi citrus was an ideal accompaniment to brighten things up.

fish dumpling, katsuo dashi, mushrooms

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Next was a katsuo dashi soup with a fish and shrimp ball swimming in it. The fish and shrimp were pretty tasty, and I liked that there was a bit of citrus in the broth. More mushrooms helped to balance the flavors.

The sashimi course came next.

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chutoro & akami (medium-fatty and lean tuna), tai (red snapper), ika (squid)

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All three of these were solid. I loved the tuna and its luscious, mildly-fatty bites. The tai had a fresh, clean flavor with a bit of chew while the squid was very tender though a bit on the slimy side.

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grilled barracuda and unagi, sweet potato, mushrooms

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Next up was a duo of fishes, freshly grilled. The unagi had moist flesh and a crispy skin, though I found the skin a little chewy at times (paled in comparison to the unagi at RyuGin). The barracuda was cooked through; I wouldn’t say it was overcooked but I thought it could’ve been more moist. The ginkgo nuts, sweet potatoes and mushrooms were fine, but the focus was clearly the grilled fish…a bit disappointing.

fried root with mushrooms

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The next course was some kind of fried root with mushrooms. The root had a very creamy interior but the fried batter quickly became soggy in the earthy gravy.

ginger beef donburi, matsutake mushrooms, soybean curd miso, pickles

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The last savory course was this beef donburi with miso soup. Tender pieces of marinated beef topped the rice bowl as well as slivers of matsutake. Frankly I found it rather boring and not really better than the average beef donburi. Compared to the unagi at RyuGin and red snapper rice bowls at Ginza Toyoda, this one paled in comparison.

azuki bean ice cream, azuki paste, mochi
grapes and pears in jelly

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Dessert was a two-parter – the azuki bean ice cream was nice, while the “cone” gave each bite a little bit of crunch. Sweet grapes and slices of pears sat suspended in a cool clear jelly, providing a light ending to the meal.

I found Ginza Okuda to be a bit of a disappointment. Nothing was wrong or bad per se, but given its 2-star rating and $200 price tag I was expecting more from my lunch. Nothing really stood out, and I thought the kitchen relied too heavily on matsutake mushrooms. I get that they’re in season, but the mushrooms became repetitive.