Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Chaya Brasserie's La Petit Menu: A new way to approach a "Hollywood" classic

A few years ago, I read a rather forgettable piece of chic lit about a young ingénue who abandons college to become a fashion model. During the course of her transformation from a wide-eyed Midwestern lamb to a rakish mannequin, she travels to Los Angeles and has a power lunch with the prototypical Hollywood agent at Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills.

While the name of the book and details escape me now, I still remember my reaction to the way the restaurant, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, is depicted in the scene. It is described in a way that might suggest that the space is forever populated with a set of boorish industry types who find carbohydrates as appalling as they do last season’s trends.

I was somewhat confounded by the portrayal at the time. In my experience, Chaya Brasserie is a far more amiable environment – more of a regular’s spot where friends can catch up over cocktails and couples can enjoy a date night than a place where deals are made and egos are stroked to nauseating levels.
My interpretation of the restaurant as a chic neighborhood locale rather than a destination for hob-nobbers was only reconfirmed last Tuesday evening when I was invited in to sample the offerings on new Executive Chef Harutaka (Haru) Kishi’s “La Petit Chaya” menu. While the requisite older man and young model were present at a table near ours (seemingly a mainstay in any Hollywood restaurant), the overall vibe in the well-groomed space is still as friendly and relaxed as I remembered – in part due to the calm, studied hand of the Chef.

Despite his extensive international experience working with acclaimed chefs like Joël Robuchon and Gordon Ramsay, Chef Haru is a humble presence in the room. When he approaches our table to greet us before the dinner begins, he walks with a graceful step that doesn’t demand attention. He quietly describes his recommendations from the La Petit menu – available to diners who want to order a la carte items in the lounge dining room – his voice and face devoid of any expression of narcissism. He also graciously tells us we are welcome to sample any items from the prix-fix dinner menus – a three-course menu for $39 or a five-course menu priced at $65.

My party of three opts to stick to the offerings on the La Petit menu, which is comprised of sushi, shareable “bites,” rice and noodles, and entrées that include the miso marinated bass from the restaurant’s original menu. We choose to begin with the Hamachi Mole Pressed Sushi ($12), House Cured Salmon Rillettes with Wasabi Cream ($8), and the Roasted Beet Salad with Orange, Arugula, Campari, and Goat Cheese ($9).

The hamachi is as appealing to the palate as it is visually appealing to the eye. I love the inspired mix of seemingly opposed flavors – the smoky heat from the mole perks up the mellow fish in a way that feels organic rather than jarring. Haru brings similar harmony to the flavors in the salmon rillettes, a recipe that apparently took him years to perfect. Unsurprisingly, everything is extremely well-balanced – the salmon is appropriately brightened by a satisfying punch of lemon, and the wasabi cream does not overpower or muddy the fish.

The spritely beet salad is a nice, fresh counterpoint to the two preceding dishes. While a beet salad is as ubiquitous a plate on a menu as beef shortribs, this is a solid version that is turned slightly on its head with goat cheese rounds that have been coated in puffed rice.

To cleanse our palates between our starters and next round of courses, Chef Haru sends out a consommé with foie gras ravioli from one of the prix fix menus that evening. While the consommé presents on the palate like chicken noodle soup, it’s an elegant interpretation that feels both luxurious and restorative. The tissue paper-like ravioli is a delicate pillowcase for the thin shard of foie gras that doesn’t over assert itself in the broth. It’s a thoughtful, refined dish.

Our next three courses include the Hokkaido Scallop Pot Pie ($14), the Japanese Rice & Wild Grain Risotto with Maitake Crisp ($17), and the Green Tea Fettucini with Wagyu Bolognaise ($18). While the scallop pot pie is a beautiful study in what butter can do for a crust, ultimately I am not quite as won over by the pie’s contents as my dining companions. On my tongue, the cream, potatoes and scallops rounds present like cream on cream on cream, and it’s a bit heavy for my tastes. I far prefer the playful take on risotto that is far lighter than most versions because of the nutty texture of the wild grains and lively garnishes, and I am even more smitten by the green tea fettucini – my favorite dish of the evening.

Though the al dente noodles do not exhibit a perceptible green tea flavor, their texture is well-matched with the meaty bolognaise and dried shiitake mushrooms. I appreciate the lightness of the interpretation that leaves me plenty of room to sample the salted butterscotch pudding, matcha tiramisu and classic warm chocolate croissant bread pudding for dessert. Of the three, my tongue is most teased by the bread pudding with its tender tufts of chocolate-kissed croissant, but on this particular evening, I find myself more enthusiastic about the preceding savory dishes.

With Chef Haru at the helm, Chaya Brasserie is entering its 26th year with a new level of accessibility for its cadre of regular diners. This isn’t the restaurant that was featured in that forgettable book with the forgettable characters and forgettable situations. It’s a pleasant place to come after work -- with friends, with a significant other, or, in the case of our friends at the next table, a much older gentleman. All “types” are welcome at Chaya. And I suspect that all types will be able to appreciate Haru’s approachable menus and gracious, very un-Hollywood personality.

Chaya Brasserie
8741 Alden Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(310) 859-8833


Gastronomer said...

Ooooh, this menu looks and sounds great. I'd like to have this place in my neighborhood.

Esi said...

I'm always on the fence about beets, but I did like that salad (despite the crispy balls).

Ashley said...

One perk of being semi-veggie - I suppose - is eliminating desirable but expensive restaurants from my list...?

Burp and Slurp~! said...

Green tea fettuccinne sounds PERFECT. I hope they're included in the DineLA list...I would love to visit, but the price is a bit steep for a poor college student like me!

Monet said...

Goodness, I need to start eating at more high end restaurants. Everything you shared with us was so inventive! I don't know if I would like all of it...but I so want to try each plate! Thank you for sharing your tasty eats with me. I hope you had a great day...may tomorrow be even better!

Diana said...

Cathy - I'd like to have Cham in my neighborhood! I think we need to swap hoods some time.

Esi - Haha, I know you love those crispy balls.

Ashley - There are lot of veggie-friendly things you can eat there! The risotto, the beets... the bread pudding... ;)

Burp - I think they are on the DineLA list - definitely check them out!

Monet - I think you'd be surprised how "normal" everything tastes. I think that's part of what makes Haru such an amazing chef -- he plays with flavors, but keeps the integrity of the dish intact.

the nomster said...

I'm going here tomorrow for a tasting!! Everything looks amazinggg I'm excited!