Off The Beaten Path
Finding Chaya Japanese Restaurant takes some doing, but the search is worth it.
Thursday, October 31, 2002
Photo: Bento Box: Try something a little different at Chaya. Photographer: Randy Tunnell
The average American consumer is by now familiar with the basics of Japanese cuisine. Teriyaki was the first item to go mainstream, receiving a welcome in such dining strongholds as Jack in the Box and Howard Johnson''s. More recently, sushi commands prime refrigeration space in grocery chains like Safeway and Albertson''s, right next to the macaroni salad and Oscar Meyer''s fine meats.
I only recently heard about Chaya, the Japanese restaurant with the hard-to-notice location on the second floor at the American Tin Cannery. I dashed in for a quick lunch with my man on one of those days when deadlines and appointments and slow traffic converge into a kind of Perfect Storm.
I was able to relax right away in Chaya''s soothing interior--Japanese in general principle, modern in embellishment. Graceful wood screens break up the room, walls and panels are painted jade green, black or white. Fresh bamboo, the hottest thing you can put in a vase, brightened the bar.
Contemporary lights hang in odd places, on wire or chain, from a high, deconstructionist, cement ceiling. Various pipes run overhead, one insulated and wrapped with so much duct tape, I wonder if the overuse of the trendy utilitarian product is deliberate. There are lots of artsy details to observe.
I decided to make it a cool, sushi lunch and go back for a hot, spicy dinner. The lunch and dinner menus feature the same nigiri sushi and sushi rolls with the same prices. Most nigiri costs $3.50-$4 and rolls are $3.25 to $9. At lunch, the hot dishes are donburi (cooked meat or fish, often with vegetables, over rice), at lower prices than at dinner.
The dinner menu also has appetizers, entrees, and noodle dishes. Complete dinners, with miso soup and salad, are priced from $9.50 to $13.50. Noodle dishes range $6.50 to $10.75 and feature either soba (thin buckwheat noodles) or udon (thick wheat noodles).
My favorite roll is the Negihama made with yellowtail and green onion. I also liked the spicy tuna roll. The man enjoyed the Lovers Point roll more than I did (romantic that he is). It sounds good--tuna, avocado, imitation crab, and special sauce-- but it''s the mayonnaise-based sauce, popular on rolls, that I object to.
Also, if I were a restaurateur, I wouldn''t promote "imitation crab." I realize that one renegade chef can''t simply change the name of the product, but it sounds synthetic. Imitation crab is pollock, an abundant Alaskan fish. Flavor and red color is added to make it more appealing. Maybe no one would order California rolls with pollock? American diners had to get used to other strange ingredients on sushi menus, like eel and sea urchin eggs, so why not a little Alaskan fish?
We met Soney Bae, the chef and owner, on our dinner visit when he came to our table and introduced himself--a too-rare gesture in our heedless culture. Soney bought the restaurant ten months ago after putting in 16 years as a golf pro at Pebble Beach (bad pun intended). Chef Number Two, Jin Rickard, hails from San Francisco.
There were several conversations in Japanese going on around us, a clue that Soney is attracting people who know what the food should taste like. Either that or he has lots of loyal friends.
The service was exceedingly friendly and helpful. When I asked our waitress if vegetables came with the unagi-don (barbecued eel with rice), she said it didn''t, but offered to include a side of vegetables. Later, a manager came out to ask what kind of sauce I''d like on the vegetables, describing every possible topping they had available.
Those of you who have difficulty deciding upon one entree will love the combination dinners. You choose two items ($15.95) or three ($18.95) from among nine entrees. Miso soup, rice and salad are served with entrees in a beautiful lacquer tray.
We tried pork with ginger sauce, chicken teriyaki, and grilled mackerel. All three shared certain desirable qualities. The sauces were light, fresh and flavorful--never cloying. There''s often a tendency to offer too much of a good thing in the zeal to please customers, but Soney knows better.
The pork was thinly sliced, delicately spiced, and tender. I''d describe the chicken the same way. The Norway mackerel was nicely grilled, and you can expect a stronger flavor than you''ll get from most local fish.
I noticed a tatami room at Chaya''s I''d like to investigate sometime. It holds 8 adults, comfortably, or 10 very intimate friends, all sitting around a low table on soft, woven tatami mats. And if you feel like singing, just ask for Karaoke at dinnertime.
Mochi Ice Cream is served for dessert. It''s been a big hit since it was invented in Los Angeles in 1993. You may have seen it for sale at Trader Joe''s. It''s a ball of ice cream encased in mochi, a chewy rice cake dough. For $1.25 each, you can choose from among seven flavors. It''s good stuff.
Chaya is a boon to shoppers--a respite from the weary work of purchasing jewelry, bath linens, and handbags. And if you don''t feel like shopping, you can still slip in the back door near the parking lot without passing a single shoe sale.