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Restaurant Week Reviews: Naha

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Jan 28, 2014 8:10PM

I was stoked for lunch at Naha. Stoked because California fusion fare with slick Mediterranean grace notes in itself sounds groovy and outside Restaurant Week things get prohibitively pricey here. Granted, I harbor some excitability issues when it comes to languorous afternoon meals, so reconciliation with reality was only a matter of time—California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day amounts to only empty lyrics if the food doesn’t satisfy. But the food, let’s be clear, did satisfy. It just didn’t go beyond that. It didn’t transport me anywhere, even to Chicago in summertime, and that was the goal.

The culprit in my estimation? An excess of harmony that leaves you with no clear leading vocalist. Liking quieter food, my dining partner, for the record, disagreed, but then who’s writing the review? A woman with a bias for big flavor, someone who sometimes fails to appreciate the pains of subdued gustation, which is clearly afoot here. Someone who feels a little disappointed when the strongest flavor comes with the comp nugget of aniseed Turkish delight weighting the bill.

Served in what I concede as healthful portions, I left a little hungry too, which shouldn’t quite happen with a three-course lunch. But then sometimes anticipation whets the appetite maybe more than it should. The lamb pizza, served as the first course, cold and thin as a rice cracker with a dollop of rich Greek yogurt on the side, may have been my favorite part of the meal, because the cod with lentils that followed tasted fine and fresh and halcyon what-have-you but ultimately proved no more memorable than some fried fish and chips once a few hours had passed. The pizza also arrived within minutes of our order, whereas the second course suffered from a mysterious 20-minute delay. Then it was too hot to eat once it did appear without blowing over it fast and furious, birthday-candle style.

The lamb pizza numbers among one of the most overt nods to the Mediterranean on Naha's Restaurant Week lunch menu, and it’s in these appetizer dishes, I’ll confess, where I tend to enjoy subtle flavors most and perhaps am best primed to appreciate Nahabedian’s light and expert touch. When it comes to the heavy hitters, though, I just like heavier hitting. My dining companion ordered the risotto with braised Berkshire pork shank, squash and oyster mushrooms as an entree. And while satisfying on the filling quotient more than the cod for obvious reasons, again I sensed a deciding palate of rarefied restraint at work unusual—even admirable—for pork, a quality I can swallow whole for lunch but would be loathe to invest in for dinner. For dessert, I tried the almond financier with candied blueberries and ate it all only because I was still hungry, because ultimately it looked prettier than it tasted, which is all by way of reminder that the free smidgen of Turkish delight to come blew it out of the water.

If I sound ungrateful, however, it’s not toward the staff, who were unfailingly courteous, though the long wait between the first and second courses went unexplained. I also felt more than noted the room's calm, accented with white walls punctuated by large but neutral works of art. The timing of all but one aspect of the meal likewise seemed as meticulously coordinated as the food’s preparation. Maybe a little too meticulous for genuine splendor amid dueling California and Mediterranean skies.

Naha is located at 500 N. Clark Street.