Niki Nakayama has slowly been building up to her current culinary vision. The talented chef grew up in L.A.’s Koreatown and points east. She first worked for famed sushi chef Morihiro “Mori” Onodera at Takao, followed by three years at her cousin’s inn in Niigata, which is the Tokyo equivalent to Big Bear. Nakayama moved back to L.A. and ran Azami on Melrose and Inaka in Arcadia before opening n/naka, her most ambitious concept yet, serving exquisite kaiseki in sleepy Palms.
The minimalist restaurant opened a few months ago featuring a glass-fronted wine wall, wall-mounted gold painted wood cutouts, and a stainless steel kitchen bigger than the dining room. Jazz played during my dinner.
“Sommelier and front of house manager, maitre d, and head bottle washer” Jeffrey Stivers presides over the dining room, “matching subtleties and sublimeness of what [Nakayama] is doing.” He came to n/naka for a friends and family preview before joining the team after previous stints at Patina, Pinot Bistro, and Cicada.
To start the meal, he filled glasses with Cuvée Jean-Philippe, a sparkling wine from Limoux in Southeast France.
Nakayama kicked things off with a dish that contrasted cool with hot, creamy with crunchy. Her first dish appeared in a glass on a stone slab, featuring kabocha sorbet, eggplant, eggplant gelée, fried scallions, and a crispy shrimp roll.
Maryland soft shell blue crab tempura joined avocado rice, an avocado sphere, tangy ponzu reduction, savory red pepper sorbet, and onion powder.
Modern ikizukuri showcased hirame (halibut) and joined house-made pickles, punchy garlic aioli, and piquant yuzu kimchi foam. Garnishes consisted of nasturtium flowers and ponzu-marinated kombu ties.
Next, Nakayama went to the fishing well to serve creamy Santa Barbara uni (sea urchin) with Kumamoto oyster and ponzu; firm, pink and oily shima aji (striped mackerel) and sweet, melt-in-your-mouth amaebi (shrimp) separated by a single shiso leaf; and moderately silky Tai snapper. Condiments consisted of Nakayama’s special soy sauce and fragrant freshly grated wasabi, which is a totally different sensation that grated horseradish.
Live Washington diver scallop was scored and seared, joined sliced scallions in a baby corn and dashi broth, and came topped with luxurious Osetra caviar from Russia for an added umami burst.
Spaghettini fueled a surprising pasta course co-starring shaved black Monterey abalone, pickled cod roe, garlic, a touch of soy, fresh shaved summer truffle, and crunchy daikon radish sprouts.
Rich, vivid Wagyu beef from a Washington ranch joined kabocha, carrot and baby corn in a light ponzu demi jus.
Hirame (halibut) resurfaced for the first sushi course, joining toro with a light ponzu glaze.
The next sushi duo showcased hamachi with yuzu kosho and silky Tasmanian sea trout.
The grand sushi finale paired a briny snow crab baton with cool, creamy Santa Barbara uni.
Miso soup with the residual amaebi head served as a savory intermezzo before dessert.
Dessert involved an airy green tea soufflé with earthy adzuki bean sauce; nutty sesame seed crème brûlée; and a simple presentation of pineapple and bing cherry on a bamboo leaf.
N/naka took Palms by surprise, but Nakayama clearly took years to fine-tune her cooking before going public.