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RESTAURANT REVIEW / 'AYA' : A Small Gem : The tiny establishment offers diners a homey atmosphere and high- quality Japanese food.

August 29, 1991|HILARY DOLE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The unassuming restaurant, Aya, was called to my attention by a reliable source--the owners of a Japanese restaurant in Santa Barbara. They make a habit of stopping there for a meal on their way home from Los Angeles.

Located in a mini-mall that faces the freeway, Aya is small and cozy, with only three booths, a few tables and a curving sushi bar. With lots of smooth blond wood, pink tabletops, colorful Japanese knickknacks and easy, friendly service, it has quite a pleasant, homey feeling.

It's the kind of place where people look perfectly comfortable eating alone, and even on a weekend night it's devoid of the date-night, singles sushi scene common to many Japanese restaurants.

Aya provided us with a feast of morsels. I was particularly impressed with the sushi. Yellowtail was as smooth and buttery as it gets, and tuna--sliced on the thick side--was a beautiful appetizing ruby color. All the sushi appeared to be fresh, fresh, fresh. Be warned, however, that the sushi chefs use plenty of wasabi (hot mustard), and the spicy tuna roll was fiery hot.

Fortified by the high quality and freshness of the fish, I ventured beyond my usual tame fare and tried my first slippery sea urchin, marveling at its surprising ocher color and slightly sweet taste.

The appetizers were well worth investigating, particularly an exquisite little plate of grilled tongue, sliced paper-thin and flavored with teriyaki ($5.50).

Other appetizers included edamame ($2)--a bowl of salted chewy fava beans ready to be pumped out of their shells. A small pompano fish, soaked in vinegar and served cold with sliced onions, tasted like good, homemade pickled herring. Grilled squid slices lined up on the plate like hot little inner tubes flavored with chopped ginger and soy sauce.

Dinners were served festively. "Box dinners" ($13.95-$15.95) came on a lacquered tray divided into separate compartments for tempura, sashimi, pickles, California roll and an entree of choice: mackerel, beef or chicken. The tempura was remarkably light and greaseless. I thought the chicken was a bit chewy and tough, however. Stick to beef, especially the New York steak, or the fish.

A bowl of steaming hot sukiyaki had a sweet country-style homeyness, lots of vegetables along with the noodles and very tender beef. It was comforting in the way that a meal of steaming hot soup can be. The fish boat dinner ($16.95) was fairly hefty and consisted of shrimp tempura, tuna sashimi, fragrant fried scallops and a savory piece of broiled salmon.

Among the many plates set before us was a soybean dish that tasted like salty beans cooked in molasses with bits of seaweed. Another tiny dish held a flavorful sesame, bean sprout and cold noodle delicacy, unusual but very tasty.

Aya offers the kinds of meals that can fit either a light appetite or a voracious one. But no one refuses the peeled, carved oranges, as cold as sherbet that arrive at the table as a refreshing finish to the feast.

While not fancy, this restaurant offers all the ingredients for a most satisfying meal: intimacy, lots of surprises and a high level of quality. My only reservation is that I'm afraid the next time I go there it may be too crowded.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Aya, 1855 Daily Drive, Suite B, Camarillo, (805) 388-9881, is open for lunch Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner is served Monday-Saturday 5-9:30 p.m. Wine, sake and beer; parking lot; MasterCard and Visa. Dinner for two, food only, $23-$48.

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