In February, a dineLA Restaurant Week lunch at Chaya Brasserie left me flat. It may have been an uninspired prix-fixe menu at the Beverly Hills flagship. Could it have been that chef-owner Shigefumi Tachibe had built an increasingly diluted culinary empire? Possibly. No matter the reason, it was hard to muster much excitement when Mattatouille and I received an invitation to have dinner at Chaya Downtown, which opened in mid March in L.A.’s financial district. However, chef de cuisine Kazuya Matsuoka managed to deliver a memorable meal that included one of 2009’s best dishes.
The courtyard restaurant is framed by towering office towers, but Chaya still features some interesting design elements. Their impressive chandelier mirrors Stuart Haygarth’s “Tide” Chandelier, which the British artist constructed from colorful pieces of ocean-worn plastic that washed ashore in Kent.
Cast Iron Pan Roasted Mediterranean Mussels ($13) were supple and smoky on their own and even better when dipped in garlic herb butter. The shells were piled with juicy strips of housemade chicken chorizo. Normally, pork sausage would have been preferable, but the flavor may have overpowered the mussels.
Pan-Seared Hokkaido Scallops ($14) were perfectly cooked, with a nice sear, but the accompaniments needed work. The potato puree was uninspired and exacerbated by lashings of overpowering truffle sherry vinaigrette.
Chaya’s fusion menu features an entire section devoted to crudo. Rosy cuts of Hawaiian big eye tuna ($18) were piled with spicy wasabi avocado salsa and crispy garlic shavings. The quality of the fish was undeniable, but the piled-high mussels offered considerably more value.
Fresh Herb Grilled Canadian Sardine ($12) was scintillating, featuring crisp-skinned fillets of the notoriously pungent fish. In this case, the fish’s punch was balanced by shaved pickled fennel and Meyer lemon confit. Organic pearl barley, asparagus spears and Brussels sprouts rounded out the dish’s flavor profile.
Now for the plate that might make my Top 10 Dishes of 2009 list: Tagliatelle, Santa Barbara Sea Urchin & Avocado ($18) with garlic chile olive oil. At restaurants like Café Hiro and Spoon House, they top their spaghetti with flecks of uni and think that counts. It doesn’t. Chaya Downtown charges more, but at least they load on massive chunks of briny sea urchin and equally rich avocado. The chile-infused olive oil added some good kick to take the dish to the stratosphere.
Crunchy Arare Coated Alaskan Halibut ($28.50) was fairly spa-like, but featured enough interesting elements to make this a must-order dish. Chef Matsuoka lined a luscious fillet with roasted grains of glutinous rice to supply textural contrast. He then plated the fish in a spicy but clean tasting fennel-mustard broth with market-fresh sugar snap peas and bok choy.
Cast Iron Roasted Colorado Lamb Chops & Lamb Kefta ($35) was a dish with plenty of pop. The chops were flavorful but ultimately a little too fatty to bare repeating. The well-spiced kefta (lamb patty) arrived on a bed of Moroccan vegetable couscous with perfectly-roasted carrots, garbanzo beans and Brussels sprouts.
It was refreshing to see that Chaya Downtown has embraced the current craze for craft beer. In this case, they were particularly strong on Belgian brews. I went with two options from Bosteels Brewery, starting with a subtly-sweet, malty Kwak and finishing with a 750 ml bottle of caramel-colored Tripel Karmeleit that was almost citrusy.
For dessert, the dome of Baked Banana Cake ($8) was a little too dry, but that was easily remedied with some cream cheese frosting and a slice of banana that was caramelized on one side. An interesting pairing that fit with the theme: cream cheese ice cream
The superior dessert was clearly Warm Milk Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding ($9). Thankfully, this version wasn’t overly rich. The chocolate was limited, the bread was crusty up top and moist within, and the scoop of caramel ice cream melted just right.
Some dishes featured elements that weren’t completely convincing, but the restaurant had only been open for a month. It’s bound to coalesce. Even if it doesn’t, the overall effect of the meal was strong enough to restore my faith in the Chaya name.