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RESTAURANTS : At Chaya Brasserie, Good Meals, Big Deals

June 26, 1988|RUTH REICHL

The last time I left Chaya Brasserie I turned back and looked through the window as I waited for my car. The light shone softly, casting a golden glow over the room. It illuminated a trio of dolls perched high up on a shelf. It caught on the leaves of the huge plants that soar toward those high ceilings and lingered on rustic wooden beams that give the restaurant a faintly Japanese air. The room looked magical, like some enchanted dollhouse. Surely everyone in that wonderful room was having a good time. I wanted to turn and run back inside.

Chaya Brasserie is not a restaurant I used to think about very often. When a friend asked me to meet her there for dinner a few months ago, I was amazed at how many people were crowded into the room. They were standing three deep at the bar and clamoring for tables. I was even more surprised by who those people were: my friend pointed out directors, writers, producers. "Didn't you know?" she asked, "everybody comes here. We've all started to think of the Ivy (just across the street) as the Wicked Witch of the West. That means Chaya gets to be Glenda the Good."

Just how good I was to discover on a subsequent visit. On this occasion I arrived for dinner at 8 only to discover that whoever had taken my reservation had neglected to write it down. I wasn't surprised by this; when you eat out as much as I do, this happens with some frequency. What did surprise me was how apologetic the maitre d' was--and the speed with which he managed to find us a table.

Speed is a hallmark at Chaya; the service is exceedingly snappy. Orders are taken with alacrity, the food arrives almost immediately, and the minute you have finished a dish a busboy scoops it up. But just as you conclude that they are desperately trying to turn your table and get you out the door, everything slows down. Once you've been fed, if you look like you are inclined to linger the waiters do an admirable job of just leaving you alone.

And what about the food itself? It is often interesting, occasionally very good, unswervingly consistent. Dishes--those I liked and those I didn't--varied not at all over the space of 3 months. And this eclectic menu, with its touches of France, Italy and Asia, certainly ought to please almost everyone.

In the mood for Italian food? You might start with carpaccio (served with baby artichokes and slivers of Parmesan cheese) and then go on to one of the pasta dishes. These include shrimp ravioli with pesto, spinach fettucine with smoked salmon in cream sauce, and spaghetti with tomato sauce and Japanese eggplant. Japanese eggplant appears often on the menu; in one incarnation they are sliced, stuffed with Camembert and deep-fried (coming out as a sort of fancy fried bar food), but this pasta is pretty plain, and if I were to have the dish again I'd ask for a little cheese to sprinkle on top.

If Asian food is what you're after, you might start with halibut sashimi or the tuna tartare (which arrives in satisfying strips of fish, instead of chopped into a real tartare). Or you could have the superlative spicy seafood springrolls, which are as elegantly thin as cigars--the outside crunchy and fine and greaseless, the inside filled with a tender mousse with only a hint of spiciness. On the side is a delightfully bitter little green salad dotted with endive and broccoli rape. It is one of the most appealing dishes on the menu.

Another appealing dish is the pan-fried ginger lobster, which features a half of a very small lobster topped with such a blizzard of green-lipped mussels and oysters and clams that the lobster is virtually hidden. The shellfish itself is so embellished with sprigs of cilantro that when you look down at the plate what you see is simply a sea of green.

In the mood for French food? You might start with escargots or a vegetable terrine. This last is sort of a refined ratatouille, its ingredients organized into an attractive pattern rather than thrown hodgepodge onto the plate. Your entree might be grilled chicken with pommes frites. I found the chicken--and its sauce--a little rich, but the generous heap of French fries had all the crispness that the chicken lacked, and if you closed your eyes you could easily imagine that you were somewhere on Boulevard St. Germain.

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