When Shota Nakajima interviews cooks, he puts them through a little test. He gives them a bunch of green onions, and requests a one millimeter julienne of the bottom 3 centimeters of each onion, with the rest simply cut 1 millimeter in width. Nakajima sets his timer for six minutes—five to cut, one for finding your bearings in the kitchen—and leaves the room.
It’s an exercise designed to gauge a candidate’s knife skills, sure, but also the ability to work with others and manage unfamiliar situations. It’s also an exercise that lets applicants know their potential boss might be 25 years old, but he’s not messing around.
Nakajima’s restaurant Naka opens on Wednesday, and presumably the knife skills will be impeccable. It's decidedly Japanese, though there's no sushi here, unless you count a sashimi platter in the menu's raw section that goes by the humble (and extremely explanatory) name "fish on a plate." Naka's menu draws on Japan's kaiseki tradition of serving a progression of artful plates, designed to honor the season.
While true kaiseki operates within some fairly rigid constructs, Nakajima has relaxed those rules for a more contemporary approach. Exhibit A: Most of his dishes come a la carte, like a chawan mushi with black cod and wild mushrooms, local clams steamed in sake and butter, or marinated chicken deep fried and dusted in kombu salt.
The "chef's choice" menu section is a gathering of slightly more involved dishes, like wagyu beef from Japan breaded with panko crumbs and fried katsu style, or black cod smoked and grilled on cedar. Cedar shows up frequently, a nod to Nakajima's Pacific Northwest upbringing. He even cold smokes ice cream on cedar for the dessert menu.
A series of three omakase options range from a $75 five-course tasting to a $170 blowout that unfolds over three hours and requires a week's notice.
Though Nakajima's a Bellevue native, he spent five years training in Japan, and prefers to procure certain ingredients directly from there--his dashi base, spices, kombu that's more umami and less sea-smelling, tuna flakes instead of bonito flakes. A trip to Japan yielded a precious supply of glazed oribe serviceware and other dishes of bamboo and textured clay.
The former Le Zinc space at 15th and Pine doesn't look wildly different, save subtle changes in the decor that impart a Japanese feel to the room's clean lines. Perhaps the biggest change is the riot of alcohol at the bar, the first thing you see when you walk in the door. Bottles of whiskey, Japanese and otherwise, crowd the shelves. Amari lines the back bar, and bitters and gin and sake occupy any available real estate. Nakajima called in a few favors with friends to procure some whiskeys not available in the US.
The bar feels distinct from the sunken dining room and has a separate food menu designed to cooperate with cocktails (designed by bar manager Nik Virrey, an alum of places like Liberty and Tavern Law). Nakajima's partner Jason Lock steers a mostly Northwest wine list.
Naka is open for dinner every night except Tuesday. The restaurant's website has more details; call for reservations (206-294-523o) until OpenTable goes live July 1.