Creative striving with mixed results at the pricey Capitol Hill newcomer.

Share story

Hearts beat faster among the local fooderati when chef Shota Nakajima opened his kaiseki-inspired restaurant, Naka, in June.

The kaiseki tradition goes back centuries in Japan. The word is said to derive from monks who had a habit of hugging warm stones (seki) to their chests (kai) to stave off hunger pangs. The cuisine began as a series of simple snacks to accompany the Japanese tea ceremony. In restaurants, kaiseki evolved into a multicourse meal expressive of the season in its ingredients and presentation.

Unlike omakase, a tasting menu based on the chef’s whim, kaiseki progresses according to rules regarding form and structure, though they are flexible and open to interpretation.

Naka ★★  

Japanese

1449 E. Pine St., Seattle

206-294-5230

nakaseattle.com

Reservations: accepted

Hours: dining room: 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday (last seating 9 p.m.)

Bar: 5 p.m.-midnight Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday (food is available in the bar up to one hour before close); closed Tuesdays

Prices: $$/$$$$ (bar menu $7-$39); kaiseki tasting menus $75/$120/$170 per person (two person minimum)

Drinks: original cocktails; large selection of Japanese whiskeys; sake; broad and intriguing list of mostly European, Northwest and California wines

Service: fluctuates from polite and restrained to overly chummy

Parking: on street; garages and lots nearby

Sound: loud

Who should go: This is a rare opportunity to experience kaiseki cuisine, but don’t overlook the informal bar menu.

Credit cards: all major

Access: wheelchair-accessible entrance on Pine Street; lift to restrooms from dining room

Naka does kaiseki from a “modern perspective,” says the 26-year-old Nakajima, who trained at the Tsuji Culinary Arts School in Osaka, Japan, apprenticed at Osaka’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Sakamoto, and cooked in Seattle with Taichi Kitamura at the excellent Sushi Kappo Tamura.

Seafood tartare — seafood tossed in yuzu aioli with vegetable chips — at Naka.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Seafood tartare — seafood tossed in yuzu aioli with vegetable chips — at Naka. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

There are three fixed-price options here: an introduction to kaiseki (five courses/$75); the Naka kaiseki (10 courses/$120); and the chef’s kaiseki (15 courses/$170), a customized menu that requires one week’s advance notice.

Add $25, $50 and $75 more respectively for wine or sake pairings and do the math: Naka is no cheap dinner date. In fact, the large menu is the most expensive tasting in town, by a fair bit.

Nakajima plates with an artist’s eye and every dish was visually arresting, but the 10-course Naka kaiseki meal grew tedious. With too much repetition of ingredients, too many soft, squishy textures and a climax that fizzled, it was like a scenic road trip with not enough points of interest along the way to warrant getting out of the car.

Peruse the wine list before you commit to either the sake or wine pairings. They included some unusual selections, particularly a pink sake made from red rice, but several were very similar in style, and few flattered the dishes with which they were paired.

Traditionally in kaiseki, the first course sets the tone, much like an amuse-bouche in French cuisine. The opening salvo here was inauspicious: a peeled cherry tomato, in rapidly melting St. Germain gelée, tucked beneath a spun sugar web that was oddly bitter.

The second course typically sets the seasonal theme, like an overture to a musical. Nakajima accomplished that well, creating a pastoral fall landscape that included chives bundled in a slice of duck, smoked baby eggplant, pureed squash molded into a pumpkin shape, a cube of tofu topped with soy gelée and pickled madai (red sea bream).

Madai joined fatty tuna, uni, shiso, seaweed and pickled vegetables in a lovely sashimi bouquet arranged over crushed ice. The fish made a third appearance, just before dessert, this time a little overcooked, floating on a raft of long, thin noodles in a pallid broth.

A covered dish course is customary in kaiseki. Here it was chawanmushi, a steaming custard rich with crab, black cod and wild mushrooms.

Sample menu

Fried satsuma yam  $8

Fried chicken tasuta  $11

Seafood tartare  $14

Wild mushroom tempura  $18

Cedar-smoked black cod  $32

Mushrooms reappeared later as delicate tempura with a spoonful of kombu (seaweed) salt for dipping.

Cedar smoked black cod at Naka.  (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Cedar smoked black cod at Naka. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)

Cedar-smoked black cod needed a pinch of that salt. Presented with fried taro chips and pickled lotus root in a deep, rectangular vessel filled with twigs and rocks, the diorama evoked a moving stream. A similar, better seasoned version of the dish, presented more prosaically in a black cocotte, is on the á la carte menu.

The kaiseki’s pinnacle should have been rare slices of A-4 wagyu beef paired with foie gras and caviar, but the caviar tasted listless, the foie over-seared, and each element seemed disconnected from the whole. The vivid shiso sorbet that followed easily stole its thunder.

In the bar, a 4-ounce portion of that same wagyu beef comes fried katsu-style in a pebbly breading. At $39, it is the priciest item on the á la carte menu and it was spectacular; the meat is so tender you could slice it by pressing gently with the side of a chopstick. Instead of the usual tangy katsu sauce, it’s served with béchamel bolstered with sake, soy, mirin and dashi — a Nipponese chicken-fried steak with fancy gravy.

Grazing á la carte at Naka offered other pleasures: briny Shigoku oysters with sharp ponzu gelée melting in their deeply cupped shells; crispy triangles of fried satsuma yam sweetened with pecan syrup and freckled with black sesame seeds; the dainty crunch of double-fried chicken tasuta; and a voluptuous seafood tartare that swaddles madai, tuna and kampachi in chive-flecked yuzu aioli and tops it with the briny pop of soy-cured salmon roe.

But you can’t order any of those dishes in the 48-seat dining room, where tables are set with paper place mats and chopsticks are tucked into cloth napkins, their tips resting on corks sliced in half.

A la carte diners are relegated to the bar and lounge, which holds half as many and has just two tables. The design throughout is all hard edges and geometric lines: Graham Baba Architects at their most severe. The lighting is muted; the music isn’t.

Naka should rethink their restrictive seating policy. They’d fill more seats. Nakajima cooks with imagination and verve. I have a hunch he’s going places, though Naka may not be the vehicle that will take him there.

Shota Nakajima, chef owner of Naka in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)
Shota Nakajima, chef owner of Naka in Seattle. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times)