I drive along Santa Monica Boulevard bewteen Sawtelle and Barrington Avenues almost once a day, and even though a giant bright red and green neon sign screaming “kebab and chinese” seemingly overshadows it, I have always been more curious about the modest black and white sign below that politely states “japanese char-broil cuisine.” (The photo above is misleading, but hey, it looks good!) Nanbankan has no real storefront, and if you don’t look carefully enough, you’d walk right past. It’s like finding our way into the secret palace hideaway of shogun society, and I wondered if we needed to whisper a Japanese code word as we pushed open a medieval castle door that has the restaurant’s name branded into it.
there is a greeting of “ira-shai-masse,” but it’s a subtle, warm welcome, not like the overly exuberant shouts i’m used to in japanese restuarants. with a courteous nod-bow, our host seats us at a table; our group of six would have taken up too much real estate at the robata bar. a young couple on one side of the room is huddled over their table, whispering in japanese and giggling in hushed tones. in the corner, there is a family with a small, well-behaved little boy outfitted in a full body spongebob squarepants bib. another couple, he asian, she caucasian, dine with what look to be his parents-in-law. it’s an eclectic mix of diners.
we don’t seem to have a single dedicated server. someone brings water, another takes our beer order, and our host brings steaming hot towels to wipe our hands. the whole staff is on point at all times for any customer in the restaurant, yet they neither hover nor ask obvious questions.
before we order, the staff brings each of us a small dish of carrot and celery sticks, a slice of radish, and a little layered pyramid of cabbage. it was a rather taste-less salad, i thought, until i realized that the vegetables were to be dipped in a tiny bowl of miso sesame dressing on the side. oh my. this wasn’t a serving of vegetables with dressing, this was sesame miso with vegetables as utensils. it was awesome, and that was a starter we hadn’t even ordered.
we had a little trouble at first, negotiating the menu. i'm learning - it's not just yakitori anymore. hot things, cold things, grilled things, not-grilled things, sushi things. our servers were helpful and made recommendations being neither pushy nor gush-y. most of the items have a japanese name with a short description underneath and a number in parentheses. like sushi, one order of a grilled item has 1, 2 or 3 skewers.
miso soup and edamame came first. i never order edamame in a restaurant because it’s like ordering chips or beer nuts. the soybeans are often overcooked to gray or stone cold. however, these were steamed just long enough to soften the pods to a warm, bright spring green, and just short enough that the baby beans inside were crisp tender. was i really so jazzed about edamame that i had to take a picture? perhaps the large asahi was making me giddy.
it wasn’t the beer. shortly after the edamame, a parade of dishes came out in perfect tempo. i felt like an overzealous fashion photographer, snapping pictures of every waif of a skewer sashaying down the table runway modeling meat and vegetables, with miso, ponzu and other sauce accessories. ah, the staff gets it now and they put the plates in front of me first. we pause for my flashbulb, then pluck pluck pluck, we pull the meat and vegetables off, discarding the skewers in ceramic cups that the restaurant has thoughtfully placed on the table expressly for that purpose.
the tsukune were chicken meatballs that were not golfball-sized, which would imply heavy, hard, dense. no these were ping pong balls, light, springy, yet tight enough to hold their shape on a skewer. only the word “cute” could describe the hard-boiled then grilled quail eggs, lined up like three little skeeballs at the arcade. i love eggs, but i think i was a bit weirded out by “quail” so i passed. a mildly sweet sauce dressed both the beef nanban yaki and the negitori, and both were tender. i’ve always had eggplant with a sweet sauce, as well, but nanbankan’s nasu were in a tangy miso that were a refreshing surprise. tebasaki chicken wings were crisp on the outside and meaty on the inside, though i have to admit, i missed the spices that furaibo puts on theirs.
mustard, but dipped those baby bells in the sweet sauce on the other plates.
we finished with namuru, a funny translation of the korean word “na-mul,” which means plant, and were two bowls of steamed spinach. one in a ponzu sauce, topped with bonito flakes, and the other in a sweeter sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds. we couldn’t finish them. thank god they were the end of the procession, though that didn't stop us from a single scoop of green tea ice cream. it's the only dessert that nabnakan has, as if they know that no one could possibly have room after the meal.
i can’t believe that it’s taken me so long to discover nanbankan. it’s not usually a topic of discussion, and there isn’t any hype. after some quick research, i realize that it’s because nanbankan is over 20 years old, and the usual “buzz” about restaurants that occurs within the first few years has long ago passed. but that’s exactly what nanbankan is. like an immortal feudal japanese emperor, now a gentle and modest wiseman, hidden away from everyone except loyal subjects like me, who will go back again and again.