Chef Yoji Tajima prepares sushi inside the new Toshizo Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center at the JACCC in Little Tokyo.

By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor

A dark night, the lights of Little Tokyo casting a glow on the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center’s James Irvine Garden, we stepped out to sip on a welcome drink, crafted from grapefruit juice and infused with wisps of delicate smoke from a twig of rosemary.

The drink presented as you enter the Toshizo Watanabe Culinary Cultural Center (TWCC) proclaims the theme of Chef Niki Nakayama’s culinary collaboration with the JACCC, “Soto de Asobu (外で遊ぶ)” (play outside). After so many months spent inside, and with all COVID precautions in place, it’s a welcome invitation to a sense of normalcy.

Corn and scallop with curry salt

The n/soto team, led by Chef Yoji Tajima, has taken up residency at the JACCC on Wednesdays through Saturday evenings and if you’re lucky enough to grab a coveted seat, you’re in for a treat.

n/soto from has created a nine-course tasting menu that provides a preview of the various dishes, flavors, and concepts that will appear on n/soto’s menu. N/soto started as a response to the pandemic when restaurants stopped indoor service. As Nakayama and Carole Iida-Nakayama looked to find a place for n/soto to operate as a pop-up while the restaurant is being finished, they turned to JACCC.

There is a sense of playfulness, informed by the location in Little Tokyo. The non-alcoholic grapefruit cocktail is a nod to Sunny, the 145-year-old grapefruit tree in the JACCC Plaza.

Jane Shohara Matsumoto, curator of the JACCC Culinary Cultural Arts program, explained that the JACCC team was introduced to Nakayama through Toni and Gary Kitazawa, longtime followers of Nakayama, who have been enjoying her cuisine since she opened Azami Sushi Café on Melrose. Toni is a member of the culinary committee, led by George Tanaka of the JACCC board.

Over locally sourced seafood from Junya Yamazaki’s Yess Aquatic food truck, Pat Wyatt, JACCC president and CEO, and Matsumoto presented their vision for the culinary center to Nakayama.

A combination of uni, maguro and anago sushi.

“What we want to do is capture the spirit of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality and attention to detail). So visitors feel immersed in uniquely traditional Japanese cuisine and also highlight modern takes on cuisine,” Wyatt said.

“We showcased the different assets of JACCC, the garden, performing arts, the Doizaki Gallery. When people come to the JACCC, they get an immersive, authentic experience and I think that resonated with Niki.”

Nakayama has previously collaborated with the Japanese American National Museum, reflecting her interest in uplifting Nikkei institutions as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds into its second year.

“It is so important to us to keep Japanese and Japanese American culture alive in our community, now more than ever before,” Nakayama says. “By holding our pop-up at JACCC, we hope to highlight Little Tokyo businesses and our local Japanese American community while providing a sneak peek to our upcoming izakaya concept. We will be immersing diners in Japanese culture through our menu and dinner setting, tying in local cultural connections and finding ways to tell stories that highlight the community.”

Zensai course — goya kabocha crudites squash campari

Stepping back into what was the Garden Room of the JACCC, now the Culinary Center, felt like a homecoming. Like so many things, the opening of TWCC, originally set for the beginning of 2020, has been delayed due to the pandemic. Since March 2020 most of the staff at The Rafu have been working from home, and so, coming to Little Tokyo is now more of a special occasion rather than the daily commute. At first it was a little disorienting standing in the space and thinking, this is the Garden Room, site of numerous community meetings of years past.

The delightful melon float is topped with azuki beans, nata de coco and shiratama.

In so many ways, the remodel makes a lot of sense: opening the room up to showcase the James Irvine Garden and creating an elegant space that will be functional for weddings, receptions and numerous events.

A server guided us to a seat at the beautiful walnut counter that affords a view into the kitchen where Chef Tajima and his staff were preparing the meal. Tajima, born in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture, trained at Osaka’s Tsuji Culinary Institute, where he studied Italian, French and Chinese cuisine. He previously worked at Sushi House Unico in Beverly Crest and Yojisan Sushi in Beverly Hills. When Yojisan suspended operations due to the pandemic, Tajima left the restaurant. He was introduced to n/soto through Jeffrey Undiarto, n/naka’s wine director.

Kaiseki is a set course menu focused on small seasonal dishes, exquisitely prepared and presented. At n/naka, Nakayama has earned two Michelin stars and the restaurant was named one of the 30 best in the world by Food & Wine in 2019.

In the last days of a waning summer, the n/soto menu evoked the tastes of sunshine and warm weather.

Starting with a Japanese eggplant prepared with dashi broth and topped with a blue shrimp, the meal progresses through nine courses, showcasing Nakayama’s inventiveness and use of local ingredients.

Eggplant shrimp

A long plate filled with small bites and crudité of summer tomato, goya, kabocha, squash and Campari were presented to nibble on through the night. A grilled course featured sea bass wrapped in lettuce, a succulent chicken thigh, lightly dressed with tare, and a tomato wrapped in bacon, served piping hot.

Wine pairings selected for the meal celebrate Japanese American winemakers. A pinot noir paired well with the lighter meat courses and added spicy notes to the meal. Created by Bryan Kosuge of B. Kosuge Wines, the pinot grapes are grown on three acres in Carneros.

We also enjoyed Yasu Hayashi’s Bonne Odeur, a blush pink 2019 Rosé, with hints of grapefruit and honeydew. Hayashi fell in love with Napa Valley during a visit in 1996 and pursued his dream of becoming a winemaker after a stint working in the tasting room of Inglenook (formerly Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery and Rubicon Estate).

Sashimi toro buri akayagara

Chef Tajima was an attentive, gracious presence, at one point, pausing with his hands clasped before him as I slowed down to enjoy a last bite, before presenting the next course. My favorite dishes of the evening were evocative of the season and also surprising. The sushi course featured maguro, a buttery uni, and a delicate anago (sea eel). I’ve never been a big fan of unagi, freshwater eel, which you are supposed to eat on the hottest days, but the anago was a real discovery.

For dessert, a melon float was topped with azuki beans, nata de coco and shiratama. The neon green soda reminded me of hanging out in Shibuya, enjoying a melon parfait.

Leaving the JACCC, my stomach full, it made me appreciate Little Tokyo as a showcase for Japanese and Japanese American cuisine. Just steps from there was where the California roll was born and folks are lining up for ramen, curry, Imagawayaki and sushi, all made popular by talented chefs at places like Suehiro, Kouraku and Oomasa.

This seems to have resonated with the n/soto team.

Grapefruit drink

“Niki and I were born and raised here in Southern California, so the Japanese American experience is one we know intimately,” says Carole Iida-Nakayama. “Like many Japanese Americans (and American-born children of immigrants) we adopted a lot of the more traditional elements of Japanese culture we learned from our parents and also developed our own, which is a mix of influences from both countries.”

N/soto is an elevation and continuation of this tradition and it makes me excited to think what will be next.

N/soto at JACCC, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. Two seatings on Wednesdays through Saturdays, (early-5:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m., late-8:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.) from now through the opening of n/soto later this fall (exact date TBD). Reservations open up every Sunday at noon and can be booked 21 days in advance on n/soto’s TOCK page. Menu – nine courses, $125/pp plus tax + gratuity. Wine, sake, some cocktails and spirits available for purchase a la carte.Vaccine policy: all diners are required to show proof of vaccination + photo ID upon arrival.

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