Just over a year ago, n/naka chefs/owners Niki Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama began serving ekiben/train station bento boxes from their lauded West LA restaurant and as a pop-up throughout LA. The effort gave the partners/wives the inspiration to open something new. On April 16, n/soto opens in Mid-City with casual izakaya vibes and stunning shared plates with a welcoming indoor and outdoor space.
The last time Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama opened a new restaurant was over a decade ago with n/naka. The restaurant remains one of the most difficult reservations in Los Angeles, and with n/soto, perhaps diners have another chance to try their Michelin-rated food.
“Soto” translates to “outside” in Japanese, a reference to the pandemic-born n/soto, which had limited access to diners. In addition, Iida-Nakayama says n/soto is about Los Angeles and trying new things. “There’s so much exciting food and cuisine and cultures that we get to eat in LA, and we always think ‘this flavor so interesting,’” says Iida-Nakayama. “Since we are somewhat limited by n/naka’s kaiseki format, I feel like n/soto is kind of an open playground for us and for the chefs there.”
Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama got to practice and determine crowd favorites at n/soto’s previous bento pop-ups. They, along with chef Yoji Tajima, divided the menu into the following sections: Snacks, market/salads, raw, nigiri, rolls, kushiyaki or grilled meat or vegetables on a skewer, agemono/deep-fried, grilled and steamed dishes, and the easy shokuji that showcases steamed rice and house-cured pickled vegetables.
N/soto’s small and large shared dishes range from $4 to $38. Options will evolve with the seasons and this month will feature dishes like the carrot fennel tartare, Hokkaido scallop sashimi with pickled cauliflower, pepita seeds, and ume plum blossoms, or the grilled kushiyaki meats. The kitchen will also prepare blue crab hand rolls and maitake mushroom tempura.
In addition to alcohol-free cocktails like the margarita with “tequila,” loquat, spicy togarashi, and lime, beverage director Jason Lee put together a mostly SoCal brewers menu, or choose a glass of wine from a list that spans international and California vintners. Cocktails include a hosigaki with barley shochu, hoshigaki dried persimmons, mugicha barley tea, Cocchi Americano aperitif, and soda.
Bells & Whistles reworked the former Ondal II space, installing plenty of white oak, a long bar, deep blues and gray both inside and out, plus a gorgeous leaf-lined facade with traditional noren, a traditional Japanese fabric that lines the entry. Note: the patio will open as soon as n/soto staff get their footing after a few services.
The new restaurant is a big step for the chefs. At n/naka, the two chefs typically oversee dish execution closely with a very hands-on approach, and had to let that approach go with their second place. “We trust these amazing team members to use their judgment and help us get there,” says Nakayama. “Especially once once all dining was open and and n/naka was open full force, it required us to let go and trust these very talented people to do what we hired them to do. In the beginning, we didn’t have the skill set to let go. I feel like it’s been a great growing experience for us.”