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RESTAURANT REVIEW : Chaco Offers a Confusing Potpourri

March 04, 1994|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The mineral water available is not the mineral water listed on the menu. The kitchen is often out of whatever wine is ordered. The service is earnest and friendly, but most of the staff seem generally baffled by their jobs. (To make two waiters understand that we want a quail egg on our salmon roe sushi, we draw a picture.) The language barriers are multiple--so far as we can tell, the staff waiting on us speaks Spanish, Japanese, Tagalog. During each meal, at least one dish we order doesn't arrive. People are constantly coming up to us saying things we don't quite understand. The menu is complex and confusing. Food arrives in no discernible order.

At some point during each visit to Chaco in Beverly Hills, I had to take a deep breath and let go of everything I normally expect from a dining experience and sign on for the madcap ride. If the food weren't so wonderful, I might have been irritated. As it happened, I repeatedly wound up happy, if somewhat exhausted.

Chaco, in the heart of the Beverly Hills shopping district, is a casual, smallish Japanese restaurant with a dining area, a sushi bar and an adjacent coffee bar. On the walls are posters of Godzilla and Mothra. Pink light emanates from recessed soffits. A vine, climbing up a pillar, is held in place with Scotch tape.

The menu offers a variety of fixed-price dinners, which come with soup, salad and dessert. There are sushi and sashimi dinners, tempura and teriyaki dinners, kushiaki dinners. ( Kushiaki are grilled skewered meats and vegetables.) There are two Westernized dinners, salmon or sea bass, and also larger, multicourse free-for-all dinners with names like Godzilla and King Gidora.

*

One can also order a la carte. And there are individual sushi and kushiaki menus, to be filled out with a pen.

Whether we order dinners or a la carte or from the sushi and kushiaki menus--or a combination of them all--the food arrives in something of a pell-mell fashion, always prettily presented on a variety of interesting ceramics and lacquerware, and always missing some element--a bowl of noodles, a small plate of fruit.

The sushi chef has a generous, loose style and, some nights, a heavy hand with wasabi. It's terribly fun to sit at the bar and mix sushi with kushiaki. The skewered meats are marinated, tender, full of flavor: I can't get enough of the beef short ribs and spicy pork. And I adore the vegetables wrapped in paper-thin bacon, the okra, asparagus, and best of all, little bundles of crunchy enoki mushrooms.

Appetizers arrive any time during the meal--and really, who cares? It might be nice to have a bowl of endagame , boiled fresh soy bean pods, while waiting for the first course--one tends to eat them impulsively, like popcorn--but they're just fine alongside soba noodles, too.

Agedashi tofu, pillowy cubes with a filigree of deep-fried crust, arrives in broth topped with weightless bonito flakes undulating in the steam: the tofu, delicately crisp on the outside, soft as custard within, is insanely pleasurable. When we order nasu dengaku , eggplant and shrimp, we receive nasu hasamiage --eggplant with fish mousse. Explaining this to the waiter is far more daunting than just eating it, which is a complete delight; the fried eggplant has an addictive crunchy chewiness, a perfect backdrop for the cooling, smooth, slightly sweet fish mousse.

Noodles are supple, silken, full of personality. I love the thick udon in a soup with duck breast and an amorphous, phenomenally sticky blob of rice cake. Cold soba noodles, served naked on a nifty wooden slat, come with a light dipping sauce, scallions and ginger. More subtle are the inaniwa udon; a thin, seductive noodle in a lovely clear broth. Zosui , inaccurately described as a Japanese risotto, is more of a porridge and a bit salty; still the texture and an aromatic green leaf kept me spooning in.

Salmon-skin salad is uninspired; and a salad of fresh, lightly cooked tuna comes in a too-sweet miso. But a la carte fish dishes are diverse and good. Grilled mackerel is crisp, rich, juicy. Dramatically presented, a whole steamed sea bass is fluffy as clouds and topped with delicious fried chiles.

The perfect dessert for any and all of these dishes is the plate of fruit: kiwi, melon, oranges, dead-ripe strawberries.

* Chaco, 340 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 247-1829. Lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday. Major credit cards. Valet parking. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, food only, $21 to $53.

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