THERE IS HARDLY a better example of how cosmopolitan the Japanese taste for cuisine has become than the French, Japanese, Italian and California touches at Chaya Brasserie in West Los Angeles.
The Japanese are demanding when it comes to getting a virtuoso performance from a single chef; at Chaya Brasserie this is Shigefumi Tachibe, a young, unassuming master of several cuisines. Tachibe studied at the Kyusyu Bunka Gakuen cooking school in Nagasaki. He started out professionally at Hakata Prince Hotel, owned by the Tsunoda family, who also own several tearoom-bakeries throughout Japan. Tachibe worked in the restaurants and bakeries and later at La Maree de Chaya, Tsunoda's French-Japanese restaurant, which subsequently became the model for La Petite Chaya on Vermont Avenue. Meanwhile, Tachibe was sent to Italy to train at restaurants in Florence before becoming sous-chef to Susumi Fukui at La Petite Chaya.
At the opening in 1984 of the sister restaurant, Chaya Brasserie (inspired by a Parisian brasserie called La Coupole), French-trained La Petite Chaya sous-chef Kumagai Kihachi took over as executive chef. He was followed by Tachibe two years ago.
There is a chic informality about Chaya Brasserie that reminds us of a contemporary museum, with its black cement floors, large central atrium and chinoiserie paintings on plywood.
The cooking at Chaya Brasserie has changed in subtle ways, from a strongly French orientation to one that encompasses much of what Tachibe describes as "healthy cooking," learned in Italy and California. "You come away from Chaya feeling light and healthy, not heavy," he says.
Tachibe's sauces, for instance, demonstrate his light touch: a herb-vermouth sauce made without cream or butter; pasta, fish and vegetable sauces made with olive oil instead of butter--although not strictly so.
International cuisines merge on the menu, but with a difference: The signature is Japanese. Italian carpaccio contains sashimi. Fettuccine with prosciutto has shiitake mushrooms. A grilled veal chop is made with Japanese mushrooms and an appetizer of fried zucchini stuffed with Camembert and served with a companion Japanese eggplant stuffed with mozzarella.
There is also a a purely French dish of pan-fried oysters in puff pastry with sorrel sauce, and a purely Italian version of steamed clams in tomato sauce. For the fun of it, Tachibe has added a German-inspired grilled smoked eel on pumpernickel with sour cream and horseradish, and a Moroccan kebab of lamb and chicken. One of the most purely Japanese dishes on the menu calls for shirasu, a minuscule eel which comes in a packaged form and is quickly deep-fried so it becomes as crisp as crumbs.
The lobster salad shown here is a Mediterranean-French-California inspiration, teaming seafood with fresh garden vegetables and olive oil. It's light, lovely and easy to make for a company supper or lunch. The lobster can be cooked and left marinating in the refrigerator until you are ready to add the colorful greens around it. The salad also can be presented as a first course at a dinner party--with white wine, such as a California Chardonnay--or even as a concert picnic dish to assemble at the site.
CHAYA BRASSERIE LOBSTER SALAD
4 (1-pound) whole lobstersRed Pepper Dressing1 head frise lettuce (curly endive)2 Belgian endive, sliced bunch watercress, leaves only 1/2 radicchio, sliced Cut lobster horizontally in 4 or 5 pieces. Drop into boiling salted water and boil 1 to 2 minutes or until shells become bright red in color. Remove with slotted spoon and plunge at once into ice water.
Drain lobster pieces, place in bowl, add Red Pepper Dressing and toss. Chill thoroughly.
When ready to serve, toss frise lettuce, endive, watercress and radicchio in bowl. Divide lettuce mixture among 4 large salad plates. Using lobster pieces, reconstruct one whole lobster in center of each plate. Pile Red Pepper Dressing over lobsters in a mound. Serve at once. Makes 4 servings.
Red Pepper Dressing
1/2 red pepper, finely diced 1/2 red onion, finely diced2 teaspoons capers1 teaspoon tarragon vinegar1 1/2 teaspoons minced cornichon or sweet pickleBoiled egg white of 1/2 egg, minced cup rice wine vinegar 1/2 cup olive oil1 tablespoon mixed fresh herbs (tarragon, basil, chervil, Italian parsley, chives)Salt, pepper Combine red pepper, red onion, capers, tarragon vinegar, cornichon , egg, wine vinegar, olive oil, mixed herbs and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Makes enough dressing for four salads.