Z: An invitation to attend a vegan tasting menu evoked a little quiver of excitement that told us our vegan world is ever expanding. This invitation for lunch was from Necco Japanese Tapas Restaurant in Westwood, a dining spot that's been open since November 2014 and is excited to show off its exquisite offerings for elegant vegan dining in grand Japanese style. The restaurant's menu is not all vegan and also featured a tasting of non-vegan items for others invited to the special lunch.
R: Tomoko Dyen, Necco's PR specialist, and Suaki Nakamura, the restaurant's general manager, warmly greeted us vegan bloggers at the door. Noticing our cameras, she invited us to take advantage of a stunning photo op. The chef had prepared a sampling of each of the courses on the tasting menu and displayed them attractively on a small table.
Z: What a dazzling display of gorgeous colors and innovative food artistry! And we hadn't tasted a thing yet! This well-trained chef knows how to tease the palate. Our eyes were first to experience the food and awaken our other senses to the treat we were about to devour! We knew we were in good hands with Chef Kenji Koyama, who co-founded the restaurant.
R: The restaurant accommodates about two-dozen diners and is small and narrow with wooden tables and chairs arranged along the left and right walls. Cloth napkins, chopsticks and a chopstick rest, and a tiny vase of tiny flowers comprised the clean, unfettered décor. The courses were served family style, with each group of four diners sharing each course.
Z: Our first course was the starter attractively served on a large, round, white platter lined with giant bamboo leaves. Artfully arranged in sections were seven different items, each given its own special preparation. Some were marinated, some sautéed, and others slathered in flavorful dressings. There were leaves of kale nori goma ae doused with a very tasty black sesame dressing and dotted with marinated goji berries. I couldn't stop nibbling the whole almonds deliciously roasted with sesame oil and the perfect measure of miso to make them addictive.
R: Overlapping little rounds of roasted organic tofu lay on the outer edge of the platter and were garnished with snow pea slivers. The opposite side of the platter featured half slices of lotus root and spears of gobo marinated in well-seasoned white sesame dressing. Necco's original pickles of thick-sliced Japanese cucumbers and radish halves were tastefully arranged to provide contrasting colors and pungent flavors to the platter. Fried tempeh, with its light texture and delicate flavor, was nestled between the almonds and root vegetables. This platter would have provided us with a delicious meal beautifully balanced in flavors and textures--but there were more treats to come.
Z: Along with our first course, each diner received a complimentary shot of sake, a traditional Japanese alcoholic drink made of fermented rice, koji (rice malt or yeast made from rice) and water.
R: This sake was from Soto, a brand that's ultra smooth and light without the familiar strong taste of alcohol. This Soto sake was served at room temperature, while some varieties are served warmed.
Z: Our second course contained three elements. First was Satoimo Agadashi, a delicious clear broth of shojin dashi stock flavored with seaweed, shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and mirin. Floating in the broth was a generous measure of green tea buckwheat noodles. A plump dumpling of mashed taro potato, edamame, and shiitake mushroom was perched over the noodles. The dumpling was finished with vibrant-white, paper-thin shreds of daikon radish and slivered snow peas.
R: Next was a Lotus Root Croquette prepared from pureed lotus root and brown rice that was formed into little balls, covered in panko, and deep fried. They were outrageously delicious! Each little croquette sat on a dollop of Vegenaise and was topped with housemade ketchup. Finishing the composition were spears of roasted asparagus and tiny cherry tomatoes.
Z: I totally loved these crispy little wonders and was grateful there were two for each of us--I would adore having this recipe, partly because I'm in love with lotus root.
R: The third element was Organic Tofu Okonomiyaki. Beautifully plated on a bamboo leaf was a perfectly round tofu pancake made with brown rice and vegetables. Golden brown on top and bottom, this eye-appealing, half-inch-thick pancake flaunted green veggies peeking through the top surface and a coating of okonomiyaki sauce.
Z: The chef's finishing touch was a dollop of the housemade ketchup and another of Vegenaise topped with angle-cut spears of carrot and asparagus. The composition was then made complete with a light dusting of powdered seaweed. It was apparent nothing left the kitchen without chef Kenji's artistry in garnishing.
R: The next treat was the Necco Original Vegan Sushi presented on a long, thin platter decorated with a slashed bamboo leaf. Resting atop the leaf was a trio of distinctly different sushi presentations. Wrapped in nori was the Renkon Kabayaki, a unique creation of grated lotus root and sushi rice flavored with teriyaki, avocado, and wasabi Vegenaise. This little tidbit was garnished with an edamame bean and pickled goji berry. The middle sushi featured a mound of sushi rice topped with pickled red or yellow bell pepper that was marinating for a full day. Wasabi Tempeh was the last of the sushi trio formed by a base of sushi rice with the wasabi-flavored fried tempeh on top. The tempeh featured a tiny dab of robust wasabi as garnish and flavor enhancer.
Z: Necco's signature main dish, Eggplant Steak, was the final presentation, a breathtaking, colorful composition of beauty on a plate. We were impressed with the time and creativity that went into preparing this single dish. Not only was it stunning, but it was also richly flavorful.
R: Imagine a sautéed eggplant steak draped over a bed of rice and surrounded by attractively cut chunks of carrots and zucchini seasoned with glistening miso aioli. Shimeji and shiitake mushrooms and baby tomatoes were also included in the mix, but it was the brilliant bouquet of garnishes that made the dish so striking and knockout delicious.
Z: Chef Kenji applied his masterful hand to finish the dish with a spray of micro-greens and dotted the composition with thinly sliced radishes with a hole in the center. The chef also loves lotus root enough to feature it thinly sliced and crisply fried.
R: A great deal of attention was given to the food preparation and its presentation. Clean plates arrived with each course, and our water glasses were refilled frequently even though each table had a large bottle of water for self-service. There were even place cards for each person invited. What was so surprising was the beauty of the meal and the care given to detail and excellent service that was in stark contrast to the simplicity of the ambience.
Z: I noticed that immediately. The walls are bare, and the floor is just plain cement, but it was the magnificent food and outstanding service that take precedence. The restaurant's name, Necco, means roots in Japanese and is beautifully described on their website:
Necco celebrates the root vegetable
Necco hopes to root in this local area
R: Each of the dishes we were served are listed on the menu individually and were reasonably priced. Most were between $10 and $13, while some like the Renkon Kabayaki Sushi is $17. The Eggplant Steak is the most expensive at $20. The best way to enjoy a dining experience at Necco is to order the Vegan Tasting Menu at $50 per person, with a two-person minimum. Our delicious experience was exceptional with flavors and beauty that will linger pleasantly in our memories.
Z: Two things we felt were important to mention. Necco follows the trendy feature of many of today's dining spots--it's noisy. Parking can sometimes be a challenge in busy Westwood. There is metered parking on the street and the restaurant has a small lot in rear with the following payment schedule:
Monday through Friday: 1-hour validation for lunch customers
Necco Japanese Tapas Restaurant
Reviewed April 2017