My wife, designstiles, owns her own Interior Design firm and is inspired by female entrepreneurs. We’ve been longing to visit Niki Nakayama and her eponymous restaurant, n/naka, for as long as we have appreciated cuisine – and were able to score this near-impossible reservation (30 seats, two seatings per night) three months ago.
Enough ink has been spilled on the splendors of this austere, nondescript Culver City restaurant over the years, but our appreciation of this meal was such that I felt a sense of obligation to document our experience. I wish I had the culinary vocabulary to describe each photo, but I hope that the photos will be visually arresting enough to provide wonderment, curiosity, and zeal for what is, simply, the best meal I’ve had in Los Angeles since my initial tasting menu at Michael Cimarusti’s Providence.
After three hours of divine deliciousness, Chef Niki Nakayama made an appearance in the dining room, where she gratefully greeted diners, and spent a large swath of time with me & designstiles.
We were grateful to share time with her, and she seemed genuine and humble. This was truly a fantastic meal, and one of our favorite & most memorable dinners ever.
Jonathan Gold passed away earlier this summer at 57 years old. One of my favorite traditions was reading his ‘Counter Intelligence’ columns each Saturday morning in the (print) L.A. Times, where his unique, second-person voice would inevitably explore an exciting venue in Los Angeles.
For me, he really was the voice of Los Angeles (after Vin Scully), doing some of his best work in the 80’s as a music writer (he ‘introduced‘ NWA to the world for the LA Weekly in 1989 ). His 2000 book, Counter Intelligence, is near-perfect ‘J. Gold’ – he lived off of Pico Boulevard, and took it upon himself to work his way west, eating at *every* restaurant, hole-in-the-wall, and food vendor he encountered. He is still the only food writer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize. His ‘101’ list was my literal guidebook for dining the city I love so much. The documentary ‘City of Gold,’ cemented his place amongst critics nationally, and of influential Angelenos locally. Most important on a personal level, Mr. Gold would always return my emails thoroughly and thoughtfully, and I feel fortunate to consider him something of a ‘pen pal.’
This news is extremely unfortunate as L.A. has finally earned its seat at the table as ‘most exciting food city in the world.’ It is because of Jonathan Gold that Los Angeles achieved that accolade, and it is due to Mr. Gold that L.A. discovered more of itself – diverse, forever curious, passionate, and exquisite.
Thank you, Jonathan Gold, you will be missed. Saturdays are definitely not the same, despite the best efforts of the wonderful & capable L.A. Times staffers. Los Angeles isa bit hungrier without you – but at least know we know where to look and find us at our best – and most delicious.
I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. I don’t have a personal moment that I shared with him. I am not even sure if we have been in the same city at the same time. But what I do know is that Anthony Bourdain helped shape the direction of my life over the last 15 years.
When I discovered Kitchen Confidential, it was during a personal era of rebirth and evolution that led to discovery of aspects of my personality & interests that I didn’t know that existed. When Kitchen Confidential – (as well as A Cook’s Tour on Food Network and subsequently, No Reservations on Travel Channel) – exposed me to a world that I was newly discovering, in a voice both unique & reminiscent of literary idols, I was enthralled. Food as a porthole to culture, a pathway to people, and a roadmap of history.
Armed with a tough exterior and a colloquial eloquence, Bourdain could articulate the intimacy of a home-cooked meal, a roadside taco stand, or a Waffle House, making each stop seem nostalgic & perfectly relevant simultaneously. There was romance to his explorations, and a joie de vivre in each bite. On a more personal note, he always reminded me of my father – an unquenchable thirst to discover & push boundaries and an unmistakable and contagious positive spirit.
I know that the true sadness is with the loved ones of Mr. Bourdain, but I do feel a sense of loss with his tragic passing. ps – can’t wait to read Heaven Confidential😇
It almost seems trite to post about an experience as holistically fulfilling and comprehensive as dining at Alinea. The more I thought about the meal, however, the more I wanted to tell the world – hopefully this helps articulate at least some of the joy we were fortunate enough to experience this past weekend in Chicago.
Upon arrival, you are transported into a different world – and the party has yet to begin. Three hosts meet you in a remarkable, yet narrow, waiting area, where you are whisked to your seat in the Gallery. Aptly named, the unique art pieces and structural build-outs are befitting of a museum, or a distinctly upscale home.
The atmosphere feels ethereal, as if there is a fog or distant haze enveloping the room. Then you stop and realize – I’m at a dinner party? Twelve guests are seated around a communal table, replete with centerpieces and attentive servers, and a formal tablecloth, and, well – didn’t I pay a month’s mortgage for the opportunity to dine with my beau in relative privacy? Right as the suppressed anger seems ready to manifest, your first dish is brought – and yes, it’s amazing and delicious, but I’m still at this damn communal table. More wine, please? Not yet – you are whisked into the kitchen, single file, where you’ll find what appears to be a Totino’s pizza roll in placed in front of each guest while the bustle of the kitchen buzzes in its choreographed chaos around you. A presentation by one of the chefs, in which a cocktail is created 1830’s style (“one of only three machines left in use in the United States”) provides great theatre, and as the cocktail is poured and the final accoutrements are added to your ‘pizza roll,’ you enjoy the show and relax a little bit more, knowing you are in for more than an insanely memorable meal – this will be true performance.
You return from the kitchen to find the communal table removed. You are directed to your new, private table. It’s a beautiful, custom glass/acrylic piece that looks like it may or may not have actually been part of the larger table, as everybody in the gallery shares a uniquely sized piece of the same material. Before you have time to intellectualize the geometry of the seating arrangement, you notice this bountiful bowl of citrus – navel oranges, tangerines, mandarins, now constitute your personal table centerpiece, and the citrus smell wafting from the bowl is refreshing, tempting, and perfectly mood-setting. You notice the alinea-embroidered napkins as your next pour of wine from the pairing arrives with your next course, which is actually two courses. Then, the next act of this tour de force occurs – the server pours what is essentially a canister of fog over the oranges, at which point the steam escapes and settles over the entirety of the table and your dishes. As the lights have dimmed, the server brings over a bottom-lit bowl of what may be ice, with two translucent pear-spheres provided as the third element of this fantastic course.
At this point, a card reminiscent of a crossword puzzle appears on the table and will remain until the meal finishes, adding an additional intellectual element to the meal. As you guess whether this is a word search, a quiz, or maybe an edible card, a bowl of fire is brought to your table. You look closer, and there are two briquettes of charcoal on a bed of enflamed salt. The grain alcohol in the salt will keep this bowl burning while a rectangular plate of black stones is placed adjacent. Two of those shapes are circular, however, and while equally black, appear to be textured differently – sure enough, those are the food elements of this course, squid ink enhanced.
As you scarf down those delicious morsels, a swatch of pine branches is placed atop the bowl of fire, along with a wonderful broth in another custom ramekin, brought out to replace the stones. You notice two “donuts” on the pine, and sure enough – these savory venison/pork donuts are warm and luscious, and complement the broth with aplomb. It is also worth noting that the chopsticks provided are the highest-quality pieces of wood you’ve held in your hands, but that is almost an afterthought to the journey. By now the smoke is wisping through the branches, and though the atmosphere is now one of outdoor whimsy, you wonder – “why the salt fire? why the trees?”
You should be wondering, “what is in the salt,” however – as the servers come and remove a potato that has been cooked for 12 hours in butter and salt, and now will form the base of a clam chowder, prepared tableside with Alinea hot sauce and a cracker that harkens back to your earlier pizza roll. You notice the custom, leather Alinea coaster, and the wine that is heightening all of your senses, and you are given a reprieve to mentally digest everything you’ve experienced thus far.
The next dish to come out is perhaps the most typical – if anything served at a restaurant of this caliber can be described with that term – a seasonally appropriate dish of pureed ramps, fried morel mushrooms, reconstituted parmesan cheese. This was personally my favorite dish, flavorwise, the entire night – beautiful, clean, fresh, vibrant. And, of course, gorgeous.
Then suddenly, a reprieve is granted – time to mentally digest and appreciate the sensory masterpiece that was playing out in this Gallery. Then, a simple and gorgeous Deejo knife is placed on a tiny marble slab. Then, a canister with a single vanilla bean – or is it? – a slate stone, tongs, a long kelp-inspired plate, then the entree. This is the apogee: your squab, black forbidden rice, binchotan spiral, served with beet, mustard, and chili as well as foie gras with shio kombu and mushroom. It is stunning, definitely a show stopper. Delicious doesn’t begin to describe the truest umami of the night – and then you wonder about that vanilla bean canister, so you look a little closer – that’s not vanilla. In fact, it’s prime beef tenderloin ‘jerky’ tinged with paprika, shallot, chili flakes, star anise, and madagascar vanilla fashioned to look like a vanilla bean. A perfect, fragrant, sweet addition to the course.
At this point, the dessert portion of your meal begins. But first, more wine – a wonderful pairing poured with a deft enough touch to sustain and enhance your curiosity and energy. You’ll need it to wade through four desserts.
A goat cheese/mánuka shot with pineapple, aloe & shiso is an absolute mind-blowing approach to eating. Served in what is essentially a test tube and on a marshmallow ‘brick,’ the trick is to knock back the test tube in one shot while eating the ‘air.’
From there, you have a banana split, which was fashioned to appear as a banana, but was in fact a candy shell you crack open with your spoon to expose the ice cream. This is served with a cherry distillation that adds to the overall parlour effect.
The famous Alinea sugar balloon is then served to each patron, and though you’ve likely seen this ‘dish,’ it’s still a wonder how they create a green apple flavored candy that actually floats on a string and is still delectable.
Lastly is the first chaos of the night – the soundtrack in the Gallery changes to the spine-tingling post-apocalyptic sound of the El-P produced Cannibal Ox track, “Scream Phoenix,” which portends the ‘destruction’ of the Gallery ceiling. The staff comes in with step ladders and begins removing what you now realize are large, ‘painted’ serving platters from the ceiling, placing these large, oblong discs on the respective tables. The choreography ensues as the flavors are painted onto your plate, one server at a time – white chocolate, raspberry, key lime, various textures from ice cream to syrup to crunchy, layer by layer as the crescendo builds on the track, leaving you to marvel in the Pollockian scene on your plate, wondering if you should eat it or, well, hang it in the Gallery. Luckily you choose the later as the chaotic explosion of sugared elements settles onto your tongue, thanking yourself for making those reservations 90 days prior.
Think you’re done? You’re not. A “Chrystal” is brought out to your table on gorgeous mint stems, a perfect cube of mint, eucalyptus, and black lime upon which to end your meal.
But this was no meal – this is an experience you will be ruminating about for the rest of your culinary life. Thank you, Alinea.
Courtesy of First We Feast, I’m super happy to see that the show that literally inspired me to cook is coming back. Well, kind of. . .Iron Chef (Japan) was the actual show, but this is the lineage, and the Iron Chef America (ICA) version was very loyal to the original, and even carried forward Chef Morimoto and the concepts of Kitchen Stadium and The Chairman.
How did it all start for me? My parents are inherently NOT foodies, and in fact did not even really cook or eat ‘good’ food while I was growing up. Mrs. Gooch’s, Trader Joe’s and anything NON-fat and NON-flavor was my entire food life. I ate ‘healthy’ (read: chemically substituted flavor, eg margarine, Snackwells, no-dairy cheese) and didn’t know any better. I did not cook AT ALL throughout college.
So I moved to Seattle (smell the rain) and started watching Iron Chef Japan. Don’t know if it was the greenery or what, but I loved it – a competitive cooking show. It was specifically non-sequitur considering I was not passionate about food (except Dick’s burgers, Jack-in-the-Box, steak, or chicken wings), but I loved it – they were using these ‘weird’ ingredients and producing literal art, and the judges LOVED it. It just gripped me.
Fast forward to 2009, when I weighed 214 and needed to get in shape urgently. I called my former college roommate and great friend Joe (Doctor, Emory University) and he told me that every Sunday he’d make a huge egg scramble and include ‘various veggies depending on what’s fresh’ and that he’d mix it up every week. I did it. I did it again. I started losing weight – and the best part is I wasn’t cheating myself. Actually, the best part was it was delicious and I didn’t need to make the same dish every week/day.
This is where Iron Chef started to find its way into my kitchen. “Well, maybe I can use mushrooms instead of bell peppers. Oohh, what about if I try squash?” Not super advanced, but it was the show that inspired me to learn and create something different every time.
I realized that cooking is creativity, and an outlet. . .and that you can literally, in your own kitchen, create something new/unique while having fun and getting the instant gratification of eating the results. Egg scrambles turned to new ‘techniques’ with the eggs, which evolved into utilizing differing seasonings, at which point I began attending farmers’ markets and trying ‘real’ ‘fresh’ ingredients and putting it all together. The fun part of cooking is you can fail and still succeed (I get to eat!).
All the while, I was watching Iron Chef (now America) and saying, you know what? I need to try the real deal. I went to Gordon Ramsay’s London tasting menu (wildly expensive) and had the first dish – Uni Custard served in an eggshell. It was love at first bite, truly. Each course was more mind-blowing than the last, and the flavors were (obviously) far beyond what I’d cooked up in my kitchen, and the experience was honestly magical. And it was the first dish that I’d tried that ‘felt’ like a real Iron Chef judge.
Obviously we do not eat like that often, and the movement toward small plates (in lieu of tasting menus; which essentially mean ‘make your own tasting menu) is awesome because it allows the eater to try three-to-five uniquely created items at your own pace. . .