N/naka Blooms Anew to Reveal a Japanese Heart With a California Mind

17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō memorialized the fleeting joy of a meal cherished under a cherry blossom tree with the haiku, “Under the Trees”:

Ki no moto ni / shiru mo namasu mo / sakura kana.
Under the trees / soup, fish salad, and everywhere / cherry blossoms.

In three lines the haiku master conveys the coalescence of contentment, nourishment, and ephemerality. Just as the poem communicates so much with so little – leaving much between the lines – so too does the newly renovated two Michelin starred Los Angeles restaurant, n/naka.

n/naka restaurant dining booth with a pendant lamp by Taniguchi Aoya Washi in Tottori floating above. An arrangement of flowers sits nearby across a large wooden console.

The centerpiece of the main dining room is a wall adorned with handmade washi paper by Kurotani Washi craftsman Wataru Hatano, applied by Oyamatsu and Iida-Nakayama, adding a layer of tranquility and subtle beauty to the space. \\\ Photo: Zen Sekizawa

Over the span of 13 years, n/naka chefs and co-owners Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama have honed their culinary narrative, presenting a traditional multi-course kaiseki dining experience as interpreted through the seasonal ingredients of California. Their efforts have been recognized not only by stars of accolade and celebrity, but also as one of the culinary luminaries of Netflix’s first season of Chef’s Table.

Yet, seasons change and so have Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama’s perception of their restaurant, compelling the pair to embark on a redesign reflecting not only the evolution of their approach to food, but also themselves.

To help them realize their vision they called upon the expertise of Minoru Oyamatsu, Chief Designer and CEO of Tokyo’s Oyamatsu Design Studio, and Beau Laughlin, Founder of Los Angeles-based Framework, with additional expertise offered by architect Takashi Yanai, a partner at Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects. Studio:Rah founder Rahil Taj and his team took on the task of the interior millwork, building the restaurant’s new wine case and louvers. Together this collaborative would work to chip away at the austerity that once characterized the restaurant’s minimalist interior to reveal a warmer meditative intimacy reflective of its co-owners.

n/naka restaurant dining booth with a pendant lamp by Taniguchi Aoya Washi in Tottori floating above.

Photo: Zen Sekizawa

“After 13 years, it’s a wonderful refresh to the space in that it feels as if it has grown and changed alongside us,” says Niki Nakayama, n/naka co-owner and co-chef. “I love that the new space feels calming, but is impactful. I hope the entrance walkway helps our guests settle their minds and prepare them for the evening ahead.”

Curved inlaid stone mortar entry path with small arched window into one of two dining rooms at n/naka in Los Angeles.

The entrance unfurls with the unhurried curvature of a fiddlehead fern, culminating at a large, upright stone. \\\ Photo: Zen Sekizawa

And that entrance is particularly of note, a tobishi-style path inset with large rocks positioned almost as silent greeters, each selected by Oyamatsu and the chefs themselves from the California desert. The path’s design, executed using the traditional Japanese araidashi technique, required laborious effort, mixing mortar with tiny stones to then be poured around the large rocks, and finally washed with a wet sponge to reveal the scattered rocks – a perfectly imperfect pattern.

View of the dimly illuminated main dining room at n/naka characterized by its interior decor inspired by Japan and California.

Photo: Zen Sekizawa

The slate gray walls are a nod to Japan’s shikkui plaster, while the smooth, curved lines evoke California’s mission-style architecture. An arched opening reveals the adjacent dining room, where a copper flower vase by Japanese metal artist Naoki Sakai floats invisibly reflective of the silent atmospheric deference permeating the interior redesign. No single design element demands attention but instead welcomes a gentler form of acquaintance revealed in time by texture, light, and color.

A single bloom hanging from a Japanese metal vase.

Photo: Gregory Han

The furniture within n/naka is a story unto itself. Artists Zen Sekizawa and Mario Correa of Mano Ya were asked to collaborate to imagine new tables, chairs, and service cabinets, echoing their work from the restaurant’s previous refresh but different in spirit.

“The first set was very bold – square cut, heavier, with a brutalist design,” says Correa, “which is how I perceived the work of these two chefs and the restaurant they created. How bold they were in this industry.”

A dimly illuminated dining room at n/naka with a courtyard garden view.

Small tsuboniwa courtyard gardens are visible through the dining room windows, a view that conceals the time and place outside n/naka’s sheltered serenity. \\\ Photo: Zen Sekizawa

Softer and more ergonomic than before, n/naka’s new furnishings were crafted using traditional Japanese woodworking tools and techniques with California black walnut, a sustainable wood indigenous to the state. Special attention was paid to the dining chairs, the form thoughtfully shaped to embrace diners for comfortability across a dining experience that spans hours. For Correa, the intent transcends the functional: “The chair frames… it’s like you’re being presented to each other on a special night.”

Arched see-through section through entryway slate gray walls looking into one of two dining rooms at n/naka.

Photo: Zen Sekizawa

“I feel Niki and I have grown so much in the past 13 years, both as chefs and as people, and the new space represents who we are now. It matches how we feel inside. The space feels serene and quietly luxurious. There are so many amazing craftsmen who have contributed their work to this space and their stories flow alongside ours, and hopefully guests will feel swept away to another place.”

-Carole Iida-Nakayama; n/naka co-owner and co-chef

Four dishes from n/naka's kaiseki multi-course seasonal offerings showcasing the restaurant's two Michelin star menu.

Photos: Zen Sekizawa

Toasted Rice Pudding, Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream, Kinako + Millet Granola, Kuzumochi, Lilac Mitsu

Toasted Rice Pudding, Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream, Kinako + Millet Granola, Kuzumochi, Lilac Mitsu. \\\ Photo: Zen Sekizawa

Light sconces by Kyoto’s Miura Japanese Lights and a pendant lamp by Taniguchi Aoya Washi in Tottori bathe the dining room with a glow as unobtrusive as the thoughtful service accompanying the entirety of the restaurant’s 13-course kaiseki menu. Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama were particularly invested in how the sum of all these parts would converge into their new vision of n/naka, one representing their “Japanese heart with a California mind.”

“We want guests to feel utterly transported when they step into n/naka,” says Nakayama, “and forget about all of the stress, noise, and discomfort of the outside world… an environment that helps you notice tiny details, appreciate beauty and be truly present in the moment.”

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