Not that long ago, downtown L.A. seemed a no-man's land at night, the streets eerily empty while lights blazed in the office towers and hotels. Inside Water Grill or Pacific Dining Car, though, stranded hotel guests and convention goers hunkered down over fish or steaks, while a few blocks away, hard-core sushi fans took a seat at Little Tokyo sushi bars. When I first moved to L.A., I remember desperately searching for the downtown hotel where a friend was staying but not finding one person to ask on the street. And yet when a play or a concert or a sports event let out, suddenly a traffic jam on the 110.
But now? Drop into Chaya Downtown on a weeknight, a Tuesday or a Wednesday, say, and everything has changed. The 3-month-old restaurant is packed. At the communal table in the bar, a group of thirtysomethings holds forth over cocktails and sake between bites of marinated white anchovies or mortadella bruschetta. The Mavericks and Nuggets tear across the flat-screen TV, but hardly anybody is paying attention. Stemware sparkles on the tables in the dining room, every table claimed by dressed-up couples enjoying a quiet dinner or groups of friends or business acquaintances conversing over crudo and chicken Dijon. Out on the breezy patio, where it's darker and more private, a birthday party or a private cocktail party may be going on. The downtown scene feels so glossy and prosperous, forgive me for wondering if this is really May 2009, with a recession going on.
Chaya may be living in its own little bubble, I don't know. Certainly, the Chaya name is a big draw. Chaya Brasserie has been a fixture near Beverly Hills for 25 years this July and Chaya Venice is still packing in the wannabe hipsters night after night. This, the fourth Chaya in this country (the third is in San Francisco) reads immediately as a big-city restaurant that's both sophisticated and comfortable. The Japanese-French menu is appealing without being clichéd. The managers are real pros, alert to details. And the kitchen is operating on all cylinders.
Chef Shigefumi Tachibe started Chaya Brasserie and oversees all the restaurants. Heading up the kitchen here is Kazuya Matsuoka, a veteran of Chaya Brasserie who has been brought in to launch the restaurant.
My advice: Head straight to the crudo menu. Though you can order sashimi from the sushi bar, at Chaya, crudo is part of the main menu and features raw seafood with more than the traditional Japanese garnishes, bringing bright Mediterranean flavors into the equation.
Don't worry, unlike at some restaurants, these raw seafood dishes are all more than two bites. The fish is cut like sashimi, and you get a generous five slices. Raw Tai snapper is garnished with finely minced kumquat and sweet red onion sparked with a touch of chile oil. Almost a chutney or relish, the bite of the kumquat with its slight bitterness is wonderful with the raw fish. Yellowtail arrives in a delightfully poised garlic-jalapeño ponzu with pearl-sized crunchy Japanese crackers on top. Hawaiian big-eye tuna is excellent too, embellished with an avocado and wasabi salsa. Note that you can also order anything from the sushi bar at the table and it's all pretty good, even the more elaborate sushi rolls.
If raw fish just isn't your thing, no worries: There are plenty of other appetizers to have alone or to share. Wild Gulf shrimp cocktail is straightforward: full-flavored, meaty shrimp, fanned out in a circle around a loose, crimson cocktail sauce. Set on a tall metal stand, the deconstructed "cocktail" feels very festive. Mussels cooked in a cast-iron skillet get their own stand too, and you can hear them coming across the room the sizzle is so loud. No broth, just the juicy mussels with some house-made chicken chorizo (a little bland) strewn over the top. This is a great dish to share, maybe with a bottle of Riesling or Gewürztraminer.
A grilled sardine is delicious, butterflied and served over pearl barley and spring vegetables kicked up with a Meyer lemon confit. The kitchen also sears scallops from the Japanese island Hokkaido and sets them down in a buttery potato purée topped with rich stewed leeks and a light touch of truffle oil. I wish they hadn't used it, but at least they didn't abuse the stuff. Hearts of romaine salad, though, is marred by a too-sweet dressing.
Meat and pasta
Pastas are very much a Japanese take on the Italian original. Ravioli, for example, is stuffed to bursting with lobster and shrimp, and is very rich. An Italian chef would probably use just a dab of filling, the better to show off the pasta's qualities. Tagliatelle with uni, or sea urchin, and avocado is, to my taste, a little greasy. And the Bolognese sauce is made with Kobe beef, a sure way in restaurant speak to make it sound more exciting than it is.
The Kobe makes more sense in the meaty short ribs braised in Pinot Noir sauce. They still have some chew to them, thankfully, and are served with a rich fontina-laced potato purée and rustic kale, which you can also order on the side. Prime rib-eye makes a nice steak strewn with a confetti of three peppercorns in veal jus. Lamb chops have a Middle Eastern accent served with lamb kefta, or sausage patties that could use a more intense seasoning.
Fish dishes are the kitchen's real strength. The whole orata (sea bream) cooked with Tuscan herbs is lovely, the miso-marinated white sea bass has a rich seductive taste, and Tasmanian salmon's delicate taste and almost custardy texture plays beautifully against a silky Pinot Noir sauce.
The restaurant's design weaves a subtle spell too, with an Asian landscape painting covering the end wall, touches of witty or vintage posters and an amazing chandelier by British artist Stuart Haygarth, made from random plastic bits of flotsam. Forget your Swarovski, this thing rocks. It's a brilliant, magpie creation of plastic hair clips, throwaway sunglasses, drinking glasses, toy guns and figures. Each piece is hung by fishing line from the ceiling, but altogether they form a perfect ellipse.
Desserts capture that magpie spirit with bits of this and that. There's a sticky banana cake with caramelized bananas and a cream cheese ice cream that must be packing a dizzying number of calories. Fallen chocolate cake makes this clichéd dessert tempting again. But really, it's too rich after such a meal. Go with the pretty individual Fuji apple tart paired with a green apple sorbet or a scoop of refreshing litchi sorbet.