Inaka Gourmet's Chef Nikki and I go a ways back, early 2005, back when she was co-owner/chef at Azami Sushi Cafe at the Melrose/La Brea area, one of my fave spots for cheap-yet-delicious omakase ($35 up), but her co-chef/biz partner/cousin has since moved back to Japan. Nikki held up Azami with other chefs for awhile but ultimately decided to close shop. Sadness indeed.
Inaka, which by day is a homestyle Japanese restaurant serving bentos, roll-style sushi and bowl dishes, is easy to miss if you're not looking for it, being a small restaurant that seats about 20 people max. The interior is minimally-decorated, with warm-neutral tones and easy listening music piped out of a docked iPod.
Our server, who also came from Azami, was a delight. He quickly took away my sake bottle to chill and was pretty good with the pacing throughout the meal, which consisted of (in order):
smoked salmon-wrapped lobster with creme fraiche, chives, fried potato strands and dashi reduction -- great layering of flavors between the rich, velvety salmon, the firm, sweet lobster and crunchy taters, the chives and creme fraiche played nicely against the salmon's smokiness too.
trio of kumamoto oysters accented with, from left to right, orange caviar, yuzu-lemon and ponzu sauces -- I love the variations in taste, but they all seem to play up the creamy, slightly-briny flavor of the oysters (and the combination between the oyster liqueur and three accompaniments was slurppably good, we had no shame raising the shell to our lips and sucking every last drop.)
a seafood quartet from left to right: tai (red snapper) sashimi in ponzu topped with black truffle, hamachi (yellowtail) and mirugai (geoduck clam) sashimi and ankimo (monkfish liver) with ponzu gelee -- A great combination showcasing the spectrum of flavors and textures one can derive from raw seafood. While I honestly don't care for the crisp, chewy and relatively bland mirugai, I was pleasantly surprised by the ankimo, which was rich like a pate and nicely paired with the brightness of the gelee.
steamed sea bass with mountain potato in a dashi broth -- simple yet lovely, it has been a LONG time since I had bass cooked like this and I love how the delicate flavors come forth in this lighter and less-adulterated preparation. The broth-soaked potato had a nice woodsy, earthy flavor, almost like mushrooms.
scallop and shrimp ravioli with diver scallop, uni (sea urchin) butter and deep fried seaweed: the four of us all raved about this one, particularly the uni butter that was a nice, rich, slightly-briny foil against the creamy scallop and the mellow pasta. The potato-chip like fried seaweed adds a pleasant light crisp too.
kobe beef on yukon gold potato and pan juices with young chestnut and young broccoli floret, divided by a smear of freshly-grated wasabi -- a decent preparation of kobe, which melts on your tongue like butter leaving a lingering taste of beefiness, and I love the potato on bottom which soaked all those wonderful juices up. The chestnut had that raw, crunchy texture that I am not too fond of, but I finished it nonetheless. Wish I saved some of the beef to try with the wasabi though, which is world aways from the green-colored horseradish.
a lineup of sushi, from left to right, toro (fatty tuna belly), hamachi belly, saba (mackerel), amaebi (sweet shrimp), shiro maguro (albacore) and uni -- practically every piece was wonderful, and it brought back such delightful memories of the Azami omakase (which was more sushi-centric). All of them were fresh and delicious in their own way, exuding the expected flavors from the fattiness of the toro and hamachi belly to the creamy and "sea-like" taste of the uni. And even though I'm not usually big on saba 'cause of its fishiness, I ate this one up no problemo. And of course, the honeyed ginger is the perfect palate cleanser between the pieces.
finally (almost sadly) desserts of green tea creme brulee, freshly baked mochi with azuki beans and fruit -- simple, subtle and sublime. Both desserts were only mildly sweet, and I love the crusty-chewy texture of the baked mochi. The creme brulee is lighter than most, and I love the wisp of the grassy, nutty green tea flavor, just enough to assert its presence without dominating the entire dish with bitterness.
after we finished our sweets, Chef Nikki came out and greeted us all -- exclaiming how I haven't looked different after all these years. We talked a bit about her business and her current plans, all the while thanking her for slaving away in the kitchen for three hours over our meals. It's considerably different from the Azami omakase, but I liked the greater variety of dishes we've tried, and Nikki enjoyed the extra freedom in creativity she can employ.
And of course, it's something I definitely look forward to checking out again.
Ambience (4/5) - enjoyed the homely feel of the small restaurant: like a converted living room to accommodate extra guests
Value (4.5/5) - the food felt very worth the amount paid; did I mention no corkage too
Service (8.5/10) - overall very friendly and nicely-paced but could be a bit more polished (server mis-identified a few dishes)
Food (18.5/20) - the meal was heavenly; the dishes each have their own signature but harmonized very well with one another
Bonus/Demerit - N/A
- please contact 7-14 days in advance if you plan on Chef's Tabling here
- during days, they also serve modern-homestyle Japanese fare (salads, noodle bowls, etc.)
- street parking readily available
What Do Others Say?
- 4 stars from the Yelperocracy
- a positive 90s score from FoodDigger
- and even more nice words from the Chowhounds
Inaka Seafood Gourmet
838 S. Baldwin Avenue
Arcadia, CA 91007