I’m a Chaya restaurant virgin. I can’t dip in the past of this restaurant group’s long lineage, but only embrace the present. Chaya Downtown and Chaya Modern Izakaya are individuals though they share the same DNA. Comparing and contrasting the two is irrational. They live and breathe on their own terms.
Figuerora and Flower near 5th, a monumental, imposing fountain sculpture of red stairways stands. It’s the, “Double Ascension,” by Austrian born artist, Herbert Bayer. The sculpture, in the middle of the City National Plaza, stares at two restaurants: Drago Centro and Chaya Downtown. When the sun’s out, the marquees appear to be doppelgängers, but when nightfall hits, Chaya’s emits an enigmnatic glimmer.
Though elegant and refined in its corporate building bubble, Chaya is informal and welcoming with fastidious cuisine. Red lanterns called akachochinborder the patio among booths carved in the hedges. Inside, the most bitchin’ chandelier hovers over the hostess station. Before farm and sea fresh goods hit your table, the theme of fusion runs rampant. The juxtaposition between rich and warm meshed with pop culture and traditional art send first, second, and even third impressions that you’re going to have a grand time.
The dynasty behind Chaya’s legacy reaches back to the Edo Period in Kamakura, Japan. Itamae Joji Inoue marries both French and Japanese cuisines, the golden standards of ingredient–focused dishes, refined presentations, and healthful emphasis.
Chaya Downtown favorites its fish and rightly so. Sea Bream, the Japanese equivalent to snapper, is the whole fish. Rolls and sushi can be ordered a la carte, but the itamae’s craft shines with the dinner party conversation piece. Cuts are arranged in sashimi, nigiri, and uramaki styles. The white flesh fish is subtle and delicate. The right amount of umami and sweetness leaves you in a euphoric state. Maybe it’s a coincidence the sea bream’s Japanese name is tai which translates to happy.
The restaurant’s sense of humor continues with its desserts and cocktails. Banana banana banana is an example. The Urban Dictionary defines the phrase as one not giving a f#&k and just doing it. In a way, that is what you have in this Instagramable stack consisting of a banana tart, banana ice cream, and a frozen chocolate dipped banana on top.
Frozen chocolate bananas…? More often seen in TV shows like Arrested Development than in French and Japanese cuisine. Warm milk chocolate croissant bread pudding is as decadent as it sounds. Day old croissants are always a much better alternative than any other day old bread.
You’ll feel even better after Chaya’s Penicillin. It’s painless when it goes down and heals you almost immediately with a heavy dose of scotch whiskey. The mescal-based cocktail, Smoky Tips, uses El Silencio Espadin the way it was meant to be used, as a high-end mixer. Drinking it straight is like drinking gin, a taboo no matter what country you’re from. The Okura Old Fashioned uses Hibiki Harmony. The blend makes the Old Fashioned have the usual orange peel pungency as well as white chocolate notes.
Saba is the secret ingredient to the beet salad. The reduced Italian syrup looks like balsamic, tastes like balsamic, but isn’t. The summertime petite beets act mop the sauce up. Earthy isn’t in the salad’s description. Instead, it vibrates with tension between salt and vinegar, soft and crunchy, sweet and sour.
Donburi is an oversized Japanese rice bowl. The donburi Chaya serves is a Gyu Don style, which consists of beef, rice, and a soft poached egg. But the beef isn’t any regular beef and the egg isn’t any normal egg. Instead you’ll receive tender cuts of American Wagyu and a Jidori egg, the Wagyu version of all eggs;)
French Fries are the best in all of Los Angeles. The aonori seaweed flake sprinkle goes a long way and can easily help you get a new edible addiction.
The paramount plate showcasing the fusion of both cultures is Chaya Downtown’s tuna tartare. The original chef of Chaya Brasserie in Beverly Hills created the sensation, and the Smithsonian immortalized him by hanging his chef’s knife and coat up. The server, who knows the menu as good as the women and men on the line, takes the reign and dresses the dish tableside. This isn’t done for pomp and circumstance like a flambé or guacamole. The reason for the presentation is to focus on the care and quality of ingredients. How one item, fatty and fresh tuna, can substitute for steak, and create a whole new flavor profile. The show teaches you how simple cooking is and can easily be done at home. It’s the best souvenir a restaurant can offer you.
CHAYA MODERN IZAKAYA
The longevity of a person’s stay in a restaurant is as significant as the food itself. Some servers have been at Chaya Modern Izakaya since the inaugural year and the manager, over two decades. You’ll feel right at home because the front and behind-the-line staff treat it as such.
Architect Frank Gehry put Main Street, Santa Monica back on the map in the ‘80s with his Edgemar Retail Complex. Soon after the uptick in foot traffic, Chaya Venice parked itself on Main and Navy in 1991.
Designer C.S. Valentin re-designed the interior to help make sure the change from Chaya Venice to Chaya Modern Izakaya sticks around for future generations.
More than your traditional Japanese pub, Chaya still keeps the true essence of an izakaya. There isn’t a rush to eat and it’s encouraged to sit back, relax, and enjoy a thoughtful conversation over yakitori skewers with top-shelf sake and cocktails. A Far East Side is your best send-off to a great event. The sake base with tequila hybrid is garnished with a pretty shiso leaf for an added aromatic.
A red gift box lands on your table. The lid opens and SURPRISE! Nigiri sushi for two shows itself. Standouts are both the seared Shiro and raw maguro, Hamachi, sake, and scallop. As much as you want to savor each morsel and grain of rice, it’s impossible. One gulp is all you need.
The attention to detail put into the yakitori skewers is of a refined painter. At first glance and bite, you think you’re eating grilled chicken, but behind the scenes, line cooks watch the birds over bincho-tan, dense coals made from oak. These coals are the special sauce. A major enhancement to the term, campfire-cooking.
Octopus yakitori is braised in a mirepoix for hours and comes out just as tender as the prime rib eye with salsa verde. There’s equal care in the grilling of the shishito peppers. The main kitchen is hidden from public viewing, but with careful observation you see the evidence of a critical eye. Patient cooks back stage use their hands as a rotisserie to achieve identical grill marks. Many kitchens around Los Angeles that have shishito peppers on their menus serve them charred and overly oiled with little care whatsoever. These minor points make a world of difference, especially on a pepper.
You eat two meals when ordering the soy-glazed black cod. King Trumpet mushrooms are massive and feature flavors similar to the yakitori taste. The whole mushroom bites as if eating the plump cap of a Portobello. The cod’s marinate is the ultimate fish dressing, with hints of ginger and silky textures.
You can easily imagine after the chefs focus on the savory, they let their shoulders down and have some fun with the sweet like the shaved ice accompanied by mochi ice cream. The positive energy connects on a meta-level with whoever orders it. Smiles encompass Modern Izakaya and a happy chef means happy food.
That’s the thrill you’re going to get.
Get Social with Chaya
Chaya Downtown: 525 S Flower St, Los Angeles, CA 90071
Chaya Izakaya: 110 Navy St, Venice, CA 90291
Article written by Monis Rose from Restaurant Fiction for Viva LA Foodies