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STYLE/RESTAURANT

Where The Twain Still Meet

November 12, 2000|S. IRENE VIRBILA

AS I DRIVE WEST FROM DOWNTOWN, PAST SHUT storefronts on Beverly Boulevard, the sky already dark, I feel winter closing in. I don't like the feeling. Once the sun goes down, Los Angeles retreats inside. The valet parkers in front of restaurants along the way are the sole presence on the street. As I nose the car toward Robertson Boulevard and its hip boutiques, it is much the same. By the time I arrive in front of Chaya Brasserie, I am half asleep myself.

Then suddenly, improbably, it's bright lights, big city: a flock of people at the door, the bar packed with outgoing sorts, sipping and laughing and nibbling. After 17 years, this Euro-Asian restaurant is still the life of the party. The design, in fact, was so forward-looking for the time that it doesn't seem a bit dated.

With a spacious bar up front, along with a half dozen tables where you can have dinner, it's a stylish and welcoming space. The dining room, which is larger than the bar might lead you to suspect, is dominated by a grove of bamboo stretching toward the ceiling. Seated at smart black banquettes or linen-swathed tables is what can only be called an eclectic crowd--sassy young professionals, the usual trying-too-hard-to-be-beautiful people, industry mavens, neighborhood regulars and the occasional face you recognize from some film or other but can't quite place. There are always a few Japanese tourists in the mix, too, like the shy young newlyweds at the next table one night, taking in L.A. on their honeymoon.

The lighting is a careful blend of fanciful Fortuny silk hanging lamps and theater track lighting mounted on the rafters high above. The art looks fresh and interesting: museum posters, an antique Chinese brocade robe framed under glass and giant vintage prints of Chinese femme fatales. In other words, it's East-West, which is exactly what's in style today.

The servers would do a Paris brasserie proud. They're more professional than many L.A. waiters, and they know how to move quickly, too, which is imperative in a brasserie setting. I appreciate that the minute you sit down, bread--good bread--arrives, along with the menus and the wine list. This last is a real pleasure for its astute and varied selection of wines from around the world. What's nice, too, is the short list of half-bottles, which includes a terrific Sancerre from Domaine Vacheron and Havens Syrah, "Carneros." You can also drink sake if you're so inclined. Prices are on the steep side, but nobody ever called Chaya Brasserie a bargain. What matters more is that it's one of the more consistently good restaurants around.

Chef Shigefumi Tachibe, who also created the menu at Chaya Venice and at the new Chaya in San Francisco, lists his classic dishes on the left side of the menu. Tops, I'd say, is the chicken Dijon, which makes about the most comforting supper imaginable for less than $20. The free-range bird is grilled, then finished off in a whole-grain Dijon mustard sauce smoothed with a little cream, so that every bite of chicken is cloaked in this subtle and delicious sauce. It also comes with a pile of good frites. Also on that classic menu is Chaya's veal osso buco, which puts versions at many an Italian restaurant to shame. Braised until the meat is tender enough to fall off the bone, the sauce is grainy and robust, flecked with vegetables and served up next to a gold saffron-infused risotto.

To refresh its menu, Chaya has just installed an oakwood-fired grill, and many of the items on the new autumn menu take advantage of the addition. Take the beautiful, meaty lamb chops, basically a rack of lamb that's been grilled, then cut apart to form the deep-rose chops. A roasted garlic jus sets off their flavor perfectly. Grilled filet mignon is excellent in a sauce enriched with black truffle puree. And the pan-roasted pork chop is splendidly juicy, enhanced by a reduction of apple cider. Roasted venison suits the spirit of the season, and Chaya's tastes aged and subtly gamy. It's a great choice if you plan on drinking a serious red wine.

As for appetizers, listen up when your waiter announces the few specials. If you hear lobster sushi roll, jump at this combination of rice, avocado, snowy white and coral lobster meat that's fired with peppery daikon sprouts. Another sushi roll, spicy tuna and eel, is richer, but just as appealing. Pear and pomegranate salad is a medley of tart and sweet--slivered, rather firm pears, pomegranate seeds and crisp emerald watercress in a dried cranberry vinaigrette. The crab cake is a single tall mound of finely shredded sweet-tasting crab meat (which is what you'd expect from a Japanese chef) set down in a pool of deep-orange roasted pepper sauce that really packs a punch.

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