Fine Chaya

Text by Yon Motskin

The original idea was to fuse a French brasserie with a Japanese chaya (teahouse), but after more than 20 years cooking on the West Coast, the Chaya restaurants resemble less of a Eurasian immigrant and more of a native Californian born, bred and fed.

Executive Chef Shigefumi Tachibe came to California from Japan in the early 1980s on a mission. His goal? To take the tradition of successful restaurants run by the Tsunoda family for over three centuries and pursue the American Dream. Remember, this was before sushi flooded our mainstream culinary waters, and before restaurateur Keith McNally conquered New York with his immensely popular Parisian bistros, among them Balthazar and Pastis. The risk was high: a chef barely in his 20s offering a high-end Japanese brasserie in cheap cantina-riddled Los Angeles? Tachibe became a pioneer.

The four elegant Chayas each feature a Japanese chef, but tailor their individual kitchens and atmospheres to fit each hotspot’s distinct demographic. Successful Los Angeles restaurants often wither in San Francisco’s culinary climate – whereas Chaya blossoms because it taps into each city’s soul. Chaya Brasserie is off the trendy and expensive shopping strip on Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Chaya Venice is blocks from Santa Monica, steps from the boardwalk, beach and Pacific Ocean. The second Chaya Brasserie, in San Francisco, is on the Em-barcadero near Mission and Market Streets. And M Café de Chaya is on urban-vintage Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. The latter, a more casual macrobiotic stopover, reflects Tachibe’s increasing interest in tapping into the local gastro-consciousness. It’s this willingness to adapt that keeps Chaya’s cuisine successful. But it’s the consistently beautiful crowd – celebs, fashionistas, models, rock stars and a general gathering of gene pool lottery winners – that really keeps the reservation line ringing off the hook (SOMA’s publisher has the restaurant as his #1 speed dial).

Of the three brasseries, Chaya Venice (opened in 1990) might now be the most quintessentially Californian, both menu- and ambience-wise. The Beverly Hills brasserie (opened in 1983) is a little more rigid and French, featuring a deep wine list, soaring ceilings, a charming outdoor garden patio and live weekly jazz. The San Francisco outpost, which broke ground in 2000, boasts a zinc bar and stunning views of the bay and the Bay Bridge. Its menu is noted for its gourmet cheese plates, filet mignon with Sonoma foie gras, and kaffir lime leaf crème brulée.
For first-timers, Chaya Venice is an excellent entry point. The large seaside space is separated into three distinct areas: an airy dining room, a long sushi counter facing an open kitchen, and a front lounge/bar area. A wall of windows looks out onto Main Street, where Beach Cruiser babes and blazer-emblazoned bankers laze by. The dining room features marble columns, a flowery ceiling mural, paper sculptures of dolphins and starfish, 1930s French Grand Prix adverts and large mirrors.

A larger selection of sophisticated seafood distinguishes Venice from the other two. The savvy server pointed out daily specials scrawled on chalkboards, which included a surf ’n’ turf of lobster tails and filet mignon. Lobster enchiladas with cilantro cream sauce and crispy fried prawn skewers are both signature starters, but the seared “Tai” snapper carpaccio with garlic ponzu sauce and mango red onion salad was our favorite. Plentiful and not complicated, the sushi and sashimi menu is not just an appetizer – in fact, many consider it tops in L.A. and San Francisco. The most unique dish that night was a spider roll (soft shell crab). The yellowtail was almost as tender as the toro, which melted before it touched down on tongue, but the sweet raw shrimp and albacore were also succulent. You’ll have a tough time choosing from the entrees: a prime rib-eye steak comes with three peppercorn butter sauce, while wasabi tamari beurre blac and bok choy adorn a miso-marinated white sea bass. Other Southeast Asian flavors abound, such as mango chutney sauce on a cheeseburger, spicy yellow curry and basmati rice with chicken breast, and even ginger coconut sauce and bok choy pad thai with the pan-fried whole Maine lobster. The biggest catch of our night came from the sea scallops, four little guys wrapped in New York steak, sautéed in a Dijon Pommery mustard sauce with oysters and shiitake mushrooms. A cellar of ports and cognacs seals the deal with delicious desserts like a Fuji-apple-and-cranberry cobbler with pumpkin ice cream.

Judging by the buzz in West Hollywood so far, the bold experiment of M Café is no black sheep in the Chaya brood. More of a hipster lunch lounge than three-course dinner destination, M Café serves contemporary macrobiotic cuisine based on the teachings of Michio Kushi, a Japanese educator who pioneered the common-sense approach to a healthy diet through organic, naturally processed, whole foods in the 1960s (he also founded Erewhon, a predecessor to Whole Foods Market). But while the idea here is that there is no meat, refined sugar, eggs, or dairy, this breezy spot is not just for vegans, waifs or actors fasting for a role – there is something for everyone, and it is pretty filling. Expect stuff like tempeh bacon and steamed kale. The Melrose Avenue Muffaletta wedge is served with spicy speltan “salami” and miso-cured tofu cheese. A teriyaki-tempura bowl is mixed with batter-fried veggies and either tofu or black cod. Pastries are plentiful, as are alternative drinks like roasted twig teas, soy milk and Jamaican lemonade.

Chaya’s Franco-Japonaise cuisine may no longer be nouvelle, but its continuing commitment to East-West creativity has helped it capture the American Dream – and tread on to the new food frontier.

Chaya Brasserie
Alden Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 859-8833

Chaya Brasserie
32 The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 777-8688

Chaya Venice
110 Navy St.
Venice, CA 90291
(310) 396-1179

M Café de Chaya
7119 Melrose Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90036
(323) 525-0588