525 S. Flower Street
Los Angeles, CA 90071
Chaya has long been one of those names at the edge of my consciousness that never does quite enough to merit a trip. I finally tried the Downtown outpost when one of my friends invited me to a hosted dinner showcasing their crustacean menu which runs through October.
Doing a bit more research into the restaurant I was surprised at the history behind Chaya. The restaurant is owned by the Tsunoda family who have run restaurants and tea-houses in Japan for almost 400 years. In 1981 Yuji Tsunoda made the decision to bring the Chaya brand to the US with Le Petite Chaya. Their Beverly Hills outpost has been around since 1984 making its Franco-Japanese cuisine an early pioneer in the development of fusion food. Today there the company has four restaurants in the US all under the management of Corporate Executive Chef Shigefumi Tachibe
In a level of stability not commonly seen in the restaurant industry, Tachibe has been with the company since before it's arrival stateside. Tachibe began his culinary training at 15 learning first French then Italian techniques including a stint in Milan. Upon his return to japan Chef Shigefumi joined up with the Tsunoda family at Le Maré de Chaya in Hayama before heading stateside where his international training and experience would serve Tachibe well.
The day to day operations at Chaya Downtown are overseen by Atsushi Kenjo, Kenjo graduated from Seishin Culinary School at 19 and worked at a couple of hotel restaurants before making the move to Chaya in 2000. Like Tachibe, Kenjo has spent most of his career within the Chaya group, working his way up the ranks at Chaya Brasserie before taking over the reins at Chaya Downtown in 2011.
Kool as a Kucumber - Hendrick's gin, St. Germaine with a splash of tonic and cucumber
A straightforward refreshing cocktail, the alcohol is apparent, but tempered by the tonic while the floral character of the St. Germaine works nicely with the aromatics of the gin.
Seeing Double - blood orange & lavender infused Montezuma tequila w/ lime juice and pomegranate
My companion opted for a sweeter drink, the orange and lavender partially obscuring the tequila while the lime and pomegranate give the drink a pointed fruitiness.
Oysters - Clevedon / Kumamoto / Fanny Bay
Rather than try all the fruit de mer offerings, we decided to stick to the oysters. The Kumamoto was delicious as always and the Fanny Bay had a mild attack and buttery finish. The Clevedon, a Pacific Oyster from New Zealand, was the surprising favorite with a plump creamy texture that seemed to soak up and amplify the tang of the mignonette.
Dungeness Crab Duo - dungeness crab and rock shrimp dumplings / ginger soy balsamic, creamy dungeness crab croquette / piquillo pepper coulis
The dumplings looked like Xiao Long Bao and the overall result was reminiscent of a dim-sum like savor, though I wish the crab were a bit more apparent. The croquette was a bit more effective with an ethereal flaky phyllo wrapper and slightly spicy fillng inside.
Rock Shrimp and Bay Scallop Ceviche - aji-amarillo ponzu / cucumber / red onion / cilantro
The ceviche lacked the in-your-face acidity of a traditional leche de tigre, but aji-amarillo laced ponzu gave off a multifaceted essence of spice, acidity, and savor that was quite delicious. The chopping could have been a bit finer as it was hard to get everything in one bite with such large pieces.
Half Main Lobster Sushi - five varieties of nigiri sushi and rolls with lobster miso soup
The five varieties included a traditional nigiri, cajun-style, lobster salad, mayo-baked lobster, and lobster tempura. Far and away the cajun was my favorite with the spices lending a slight southern kick to the still crisp crustacean. The tempura was a close second; the crunchy nugget-like morsel of lobster had a delectable savor and was topped with a creamy spicy sauce. The nigiri had a nice crispness and deftly showed off the lobster's inherent sweetness though it could have used some wasabi. The lobster salad was interesting thanks to the contrast of the creamy lobster with the vegetal endive wrapper. The dynamite was probably the weakest as the mayo overwhelmed the lobster's delicate flavor.
Spiced Ginger Margarita - Tanteo jalapeno with ginger infused tequila, house made sweet n sour, triple sec and candied ginger
This was my favorite of the cocktails, the grassy spice of the jalepeno was readily apparent and a deft foil for the sweeter elements in the margarita.
Russian Blues - lemon infused Krista vodka w/ blueberry puree soda, house made sweet n sour and fresh blueberries
For our second round we let our waitress pick some of her favorite cocktails. The Russian Blues had an intense berry fruitiness though a slightly bitter refrain kept things balanced.
Classic Bigeye Tuna Tartare - crostini / avocado
I probably would have steered clear of this once trendy now tired dish if our waitress hadn't mentioned that the dish was invented by Chaya's Executive Chef Shigefumi Tachibe though a quick search shows there are earlier competing claims. As the story goes, Tachibe came up with the idea in 1984 as a lighter alternative for people who didn't want to eat raw beef. Indeed his preparation is more akin to a traditional steak tartare, using a dijon/mayo mixture rather than Japanese condiments like soy or ponzu.
Crunchy Yellowtail - garlic-jalapeno ponzu
The fish has a delightfully oily mouth feel complimented by the astringent spice of the jalapeno and the levity of the ponzu finished with a toasty savory depth from the bits of Japanese rice cracker.
Warm Milk Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding - dulce de leche goat cheese ice cream
Another recommendation by our waitress this was a delightful end to the meal. The bread pudding is has a sugary crust and rich chocolate sweetness while the ice cream beautifully meshes the rich warmth of dulce de leche with a light tang from the goat cheese.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Chaya, but Chef Kenjo delivered a satisfying experience. My companion and I definitely stuck to the lighter side of the menu but it still provided some insight into the blend of French and Japanese flavor that the restaurant is known for.
Sunday, October 14, 2012
525 S. Flower Street