Chaya Brasserie, the 27-year-old French-Japanese restaurant, closed for a week in November to freshen up the interior. And when the doors swung open again, it had a new menu and a new chef. Shigefumi Tachibe, corporate chef of the Chaya Group, which includes Chaya Venice, Chaya Downtown and Chaya San Francisco as well as M Cafe de Chaya, fiddles with the flagship restaurant's menu every few years. This time, though, it wasn't just a tweak but a major reinvention. With the kitchen performing better than ever, it's a good opportunity to rediscover this iconic and understated brasserie.
The new chef is Paris-born Harutaka Kishi, most recently executive sous chef at Gordon Ramsay at the London West Hollywood. His formidable résumé includes stints at his family's restaurant in Paris and working for several years under Joel Robuchon at Le Chateau in Tokyo.
Together, Tachibe and Kishi have launched two new menus: La Petite is the à la carte menu of small plates and a few main courses, and the Chaya Brasserie tasting menu is either three courses for $39 or five courses for $65. But because La Petite and the tasting menus are served in different sections of the dining room, you have to know which you're ordering from before you sit down.
The stately grove of timber bamboo in the middle of the restaurant has been partially obscured by tall, filmy white curtains, the better to separate the dining area in two. The entrance to the kitchen is now screened by a backlit faux marble panel, which gives the room a soft golden glow. And bulbous copper hanging lamps now light up the tables, the better to see the food and to check out what everyone else is wearing — or not wearing. On some nights a lot of enhanced frontage is on display: just girls having fun. But then Chaya has always been a magnet for the fashion set.
There are also tables of business or film people discussing a project, wide-eyed twentysomethings from the fashion world celebrating a birthday, couples dining out and occasionally someone alone having Chaya's signature Dijon chicken with a glass of wine. Cedars-Sinai is a block away, and after visiting someone in the hospital, Chaya is a welcome haven of civility.
It's also an ideal spot for lunch if you're doing some shopping at the boutiques along Robertson Boulevard. Guaranteed, you'll eat better here than at that famous celebrity magnet with a white picket fence in front — and spend a lot less too, especially if you're choosing from the à la carte La Petite menu, which is mostly appetizers and small plates, plus a few main courses.
Kishi has kept a couple of signature dishes, which taste better than ever. One is the tuna tartare appetizer that comes with long, square-cut toasts stacked like logs. The tartare is hand cut, each tiny cube slicked with piquant, slightly sweet sauce, a classic.
Consider the char-grilled miso chicken wings too. They're tender and moist and are served with a shallow bowl of miso sauce for dipping. Foie gras and chicken parfait with yuzu jelly just begs to be shared. Tender and savory Moroccan lamb meatballs could be supper all on their own. But my favorite starter is the Hokkaido scallop pot pie baked in a tall porcelain dish with a pastry lid hat. Inside are beautiful little Japanese scallops with chunks of velvety shiitake and a few cubes of potato cloaked in a silken cream sauce. It's a brilliant choice with a Chardonnay.
Feeling like a little pasta? Get the green tea fettucine (the tea tints the pasta green; you can't really taste it) with a gently nuanced Bolognese made with wagyu beef. You probably don't want the ricotta gnocchi with kabocha squash and white shrimp, though, it's gummy and the sauce is overreduced. Both can be ordered as either an appetizer or a main course.
If you're a fan of brasserie-style steak, go with the textbook steak au poivre. It's rib-eye in a really punchy sauce made with several kinds of peppercorns. It comes with beautiful golden potatoes too. A great dish for a Burgundy or Pinot. Dijon chicken has been a hit all these years and is still pretty great. Now it's Jidori, wood-grilled to a crisp gold and served with a dreamy Dijon cream sauce and a heap of yellow-gold fries so deep-flavored we're thinking duck fat.
Chaya is serious about the food, so much so that the menu states "changes and modifications are politely declined."
The restaurant is also serious about service. I appreciate the courteous old-school waiters who are definitely not actors-in-training but career waiters of a kind you don't encounter much anymore. Gracious and helpful, they don't turn reciting the specials into performance art and may, on occasion, even be seen to be consulting their notes rather than winging it.
Chaya hews to its identity as a brasserie with the tasting menus, which are closer to the French model at normal restaurants than to a Pierre Gagnaire extravaganza that lasts for hours. The three-course menu is a bargain too, with a couple of choices in each course, which makes ordering easy. Dishes are well executed and pleasing.
A first course of salmon mi-cuit (half-cooked) is a knockout, a tall bar of salmon beautifully pink at the center set down in a puddle of wasabi cream garnished with sprigs of watercress. Celeriac velouté is a major dish too, a silky purée of celery root garnished with morsels of smoked trout and a poached organic egg with peppery daikon cress scattered over.
A main course of chicken paillard brings back an overlooked bistro standby, served with a potato gratin and carrot "pearls" in a truffle sauce (in which I couldn't quite detect the truffles). King prawn risotto is more pilaf than risotto, dry and fluffy, but pleasant enough. Still, fried maitake mushrooms as a garnish seems a waste of a beautiful mushroom.
Desserts aren't too sweet, the better to taste the swirl of poached pears atop a vanilla-scented clafouti. Fondant chocolate with banana ice cream is an excellent version of the molten chocolate cake, again not too sweet. And butterscotch flan from the "Petite" side of the menu may just have to duel it out with Nancy Silverton's budino for the butterscotch crown. This is incredibly silky, with a deep, dark caramel taste.
The five-course tasting menu doesn't leave you feeling stuffed but offers only one choice — fish or beef — for the main course, so in reality, the three-course menu gives you more options. I did love the chicken noodle soup, a lovely clear broth with poached chicken breast, a few vegetables and supple ravioli filled with foie gras. For my money, though, I'd go with the three-course menu. It's fresher and lighter.
Is this everything the new chef can do? Probably not. But he's cooking a smart menu that's a subtle update of one of L.A.'s iconic Franco-Japanese restaurants. Not many places in this town have ever made it past the 25-year mark, but this one has, and there's a simple reason. Good cooking and good service in a chic setting with a distinctly urban personality. And the world is just outside the door. That's location.
Rating: two stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 8741 Alden Drive (near Robertson Boulevard), Los Angeles; (310) 859-8833; http://www.thechaya.com/beverlyhills
Price: Sushi, $5 to $13; bites, $5 to $16; rice & noodles, $8 to $18; entrees, $16 to $29; desserts, $5 to $9. Brasserie three-course tasting menu, $39 per person; five-course tasting menu, $65 per person. Wine pairings available. Corkage, $20. Wines from regular (not reserve) list half price Tuesday nights.
Details: Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday. (Note: The Brasserie section opens at 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday.) Full bar. Valet parking, $7.