Naka Is a New Japanese Star in Seattle…with Challenges

Naka entry I just updated my “map” of the area’s best Japanese restaurants for Eater Seattle, with just one addition to the list: Naka. Chef Shota Nakajima’s food is fabulous. Success, though, might be challenging.

In my short blurb, I state “You can order a la carte (not a bad choice if you’re hungry after sipping a creative cocktail in the bar area), but better is to let the kitchen send out a thoughtfully planned course menu.” Why? Portions are small with prices on the high side, and I fear that a diner who orders the “wrong” choice of plates might walk away dissatisfied. For most, Naka’s kaiseki-style food is better-suited to a course menu that the chef curates.

Even then, given our Western ways, some people might say it’s not enough food. We’d be healthier if we embrace the Japanese practice of hara hachi bu—eating until only 80 percent full. But even my Japanese friends in Seattle say that they typically seek value when eating out here, explaining that they save their money for Naka-like meals when they make visits back to Japan.

Frankly, I’m not sure when I’ll get back to Naka, as much as I enjoyed it. The restaurant is out of my normal budget range. I compare it (however unfairly) to Tanuki, a quirky izakaya in Portland where a tasting menu of about 8-10 small plates runs only $25. (Expect to pay about $100 more for that many plates at Naka.) The atmosphere is completely different, but the bold flavors of the food are actually more in line with what my palate prefers.

That said, it wouldn’t be a stretch to also compare Naka to a restaurant in the opposite direction where I ate several years ago. The chef there, like Nakajima today, was in his mid-twenties, and specialized in a tasting menu (then just $55!) of many small bites. And as at Naka, the delicious food was gorgeously presented on an array of beautiful ceramic (and other natural) plates and bowls.

I speak, of course, of the Willows Inn (with chef Blaine Wetzel) on Lummi Island. I can’t help but think that if Naka was in a more exotic destination and a beneficiary of a critic’s glowing national review, it would enjoy similar popularity.

But will critics (of all of today’s types) “get” Naka? Not everyone understands kaiseki-style dining with its artistic aesthetic and delicate flavors. And will the location work? The Capitol Hill crowd flocks to nearby Momiji for its cocktails and crazy rolls with ingredients like cream cheese and pineapple-coconut glaze. Far from what Naka offers. Naka does have a strong cocktail program featuring a fiercely talented bartender, but the boldness of the bar will need to stay in tune with the subtlety of what’s happening in the dining room just beyond it.

One final challenge to the chef (and me!) regards the use of bluefin tuna. Especially with the recent launch of Smart Catch, awareness of sustainability is increasing. Nakajima grew up in America, and is well aware of bluefin being fished to possible extinction. When I asked him about serving it, he acknowledged the controversy and said that he only serves small portions, doing so because it’s simply delicious.

I don’t dispute the deliciousness. It’s so true that I ate the bluefin he presented me. But as I recently discussed with another local chef who was served bluefin as part of an omakase meal at a different Japanese restaurant on my Eater list, we need to leave that bluefin on the plate as a message. Otherwise, I’m a hypocrite in critiquing someone for serving it.

I also know this to be true: A chef as talented as Nakajima can wow his diners with something else. (Like the smelt you’ll see in the photos that follow.) There’s plenty of fish in the sea—and if we act smartly about bluefin tuna, their numbers will hopefully return for future generations to enjoy.

Finally, a challenge to the people (many of you make good money!) of Seattle: Go to Naka. If you wish, have an inventive cocktail before dinner. Then let Nakajima cook for you. Eat with your eyes and all of your other senses. And don’t feel like you have to eat until you’re completely full. (You’ll then be better off for any post-dinner activities in your plans.) Here are some photos to tempt you…

Naka Niwa: Bombay Sapphire Gin, ginger, matcha, smoked sea salt, and tomato water

Naka Niwa: Bombay Sapphire Gin, ginger, matcha, smoked sea salt, and tomato water

Cherry tomato compote with St. Germain gelee

Cherry tomato compote with St. Germain gelee

Seasonal bites: pickled turnip, kabocha, key lime, seared bluefin belly with kombu salt, braised morel, corn, chives wrapped in soy-marinated bluefin tuna, pickled madai (sea bream)

Seasonal bites: pickled turnip, kabocha, key lime, seared bluefin belly with kombu salt, braised morel, corn, chives wrapped in soy-marinated bluefin tuna, pickled madai (sea bream)

Chawanmushi with black cod, morels, and dungeness crab

Chawanmushi with black cod, morels, and dungeness crab

Cedar-smoked black cod, spot prawn, pickled lotus root, miyoga, sea bean, and burnt rosemary

Cedar-smoked black cod, spot prawn, pickled lotus root, miyoga, sea bean, and burnt rosemary

Shiso sorbet

Shiso sorbet

Wagyu tataki with red uni and white sturgeon caviar

Wagyu tataki with red uni and white sturgeon caviar

Smelt dill tempura with shiso leaf and kombu salt

Smelt dill tempura with shiso leaf and kombu salt

Cedar-smoked vanilla gelato (after the smoke faded)

Cedar-smoked vanilla gelato (after the smoke faded)

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