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STYLE / RESTAURANTS

12 Years of Fusion and Counting

September 08, 1996|S. Irene Virbila

Though Chaya Brasserie celebrated its 12th anniversary this summer, the scene at the now-venerable Franco-Japanese brasserie is still hopping. In early evening, with only a few people at the bar and at tables, the atmosphere is relatively tame. But an hour or two later, every seat is taken, the bar is jammed with young lovelies in black and the maitre d' is standing off pleas for a table from a crowd that will just have to wait.

Set on a small street just off Robertson Boulevard, Chaya Brasserie wears its years well. With its soaring ceilings, pale wood beams and bamboo grove in the middle of the room, it is one of the best-looking restaurants in L.A. Lamps with ivory silk damask shades cast soft, ethereal light. A huge chinoiserie painting of geishas tittering behind their fans lends subtle glamour. (Currently, the walls are plastered with posters from the Picasso portraiture exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

The best seats in the house are the tall-backed black banquettes, from which you can survey the action reflected in the mirrors hung at a slight tilt around the room. Service is bright and snappy, just what it should be for a brasserie. Chaya's large menu still showcases the distinctive fusion of Asian and Mediterranean cuisine that the Japanese-owned restaurant debuted in 1984. And today, the kitchen manages to turn out competent--occasionally very good--cooking in its familiar East-West style.

One of the signature dishes is halibut sashimi, a flurry of julienned raw carrots and daikon scattered with peppery daikon sprouts in a gingery Japanese horseradish dressing topped by fine, plush slices of halibut. It is big and satisfying enough to make a light lunch. Another of the menu's best dishes is perfectly seared foie gras presented with a fan of ripe mango slices. "Tower" of smoked sturgeon, layered with wisps of frisee, a crisp potato pancake and moist smoked sturgeon embellished with sour cream and golden caviar, is wonderful, too. Hawaiian tuna tartare comes diced and lavished with a creamy dressing laced with minced scallions--delicious spread on the thin, crisp croutons.

The Caesar strewn with crunchy homemade croutons is decent, but pass on the watery-tasting carpaccio oddly garnished with grilled vegetables and buried under Parmesan shavings. The most expensive first course, beautifully cooked lobster with mashed potatoes, is marred by a muddled, overly rich truffle sauce.

Pastas are more in the overdressed California style than the lighter Italian fashion. Spaghetti with Japanese eggplant, for example, is drowned in tomato sauce, the grilled eggplant garnish freighted with too much Parmesan. As for main courses, the grilled chicken Dijon in a spunky whole-grain mustard is just as appealing as ever, only now, instead of a pile of terrific pommes frites, it comes with mashed potatoes. The rib-eye steak with three-peppercorn butter is another classic. And thick lamb chops are quite good, presented in a clear brown reduction, but less than compelling is the accompanying tasteless lamb patty sandwiched with soggy potato pancakes.

Grilled duck in wasabi-tamari sauce--rubbery and seemingly cooked without any understanding of the bird--is a dish to avoid. The house specialty, roasted venison, is lackluster, suspiciously tender, bland despite a red wine-peppercorn reduction and a starchy sweet chestnut puree. Fish is as likely to be overcooked as not. One night John Dory smeared with pesto is as unremarkable as the cooking from a chain hotel kitchen.

The wine list, however, is a welcome change of pace. It is filled with interesting, offbeat choices in a variety of price ranges. You can find a Muscadet and a German Riesling alongside a Vega Sicilia "Unico" from Spain or Edmunds St. John Syrah. It lists California Sangiovese and some of the top Tuscan examples, too; a couple of Bandols from southern France along with Ridge's Mataro (the California name for Bandol's Mourvedre).

After 12 years, sure, Chaya Brasserie has its faults, but it's certainly better than anything else in this trendy neighborhood.

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CHAYA BRASSERIE

CUISINE: Franco-Japanese. AMBIENCE: Stylish brasserie with chinoiserie touches. BEST DISHES: halibut sashimi, smoked sturgeon "tower," foie gras with mango, chicken Dijon. WINE PICK: La Bastide Blanche Bandol "Cuvee Fontanieu," 1993. FACTS: 8741 Alden Drive, Los Angeles; (310) 859-8833. Lunch and dinner daily. Dinner for two, food only, $55 to $100. Corkage $15. Valet parking.

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