Monday, March 26, 2018

Chaya

Chaya is a very small chain of Japanese restaurants in California (Los Angeles and, previously San Francisco), although the family that operates it claims to have restaurants going back to the 1600s in Japan.  They now have several concepts, all Asian fusion, in the LA area.

The San Francisco restaurant had an impressive 17 year run, right on the Embarcadero along the waterfront.  The closure was cited due to the lease not renewing, and the operators decided not to pursue another location in San Francisco.

I visited Chaya several times before I started blogging, and I remember thinking the food was all good, but, nothing particularly memorable (although I was there for Earth Hour one year, and *that* was memorable, the entire restaurant, and waterfront, going dark!)

At some point though, about 3 months before they closed, I discovered their "famous" chocolate croissant bread pudding.  OMG.

I really wish they hadn't closed, for that dish alone.

Setting

Chaya has both a formal dining room and a bar area available for drop-ins, plus a small amount of outside seating on the sidewalk.
Bar Area.
The bar itself has some classy looking stools and fairly ornate decoration, and a very wide variety of booze on display.

On my first visit, I opted for a glass of Frank Family 2013 Zinfandel, which I really enjoyed, very smooth, yet complex.  On my second, I went for white wine since I was pairing with seafood, and took the server's suggestion of the Astrolabe 2015 Sauvignon Blanc.  It was unremarkable.

Visit #1: Drinks & Dessert, May 2017

My first visit was with 3 others, just to have drinks in the bar, and, I'll be honest, for me to get some tasty dessert.
Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding / Vanilla Ice Cream / Caramel Sauce. $12.
Um, wow.

So, I know Yelpers all love this bread pudding.  I know that it is "famous".  But still.  It takes a lot to impress me with a dessert, particularly bread pudding.  Bread pudding is a personal favorite (sweet, savory, served as dessert, breakfast, you name it).  I eat a lot of desserts, and I have very strong opinions on bread pudding.  There is a particular style I like, and many that I loathe.

I like bread pudding with a crusty top, but a moist, custardy inside, yet not soggy or mushy (like the ones at Scollay SquareLegal Crossing, and Luna Park).  I like bread pudding to have chunks of bread, not a homogenous dense mass (like the smoked bread pudding at Alden & Harlow, the Hawaiian brunch bread pudding at Stone's Throw, the truly horrendous cold version at Soma Inn Cafe, the fruity version at Blue Plate, the famous donut version from Causwells, or the chocolate sour cherry version at Mikkeller bar).  I prefer it warm, and of course I like to see it served with ice cream or whipped cream.  Extra points of it is made with a rich bread like croissant (like the amazing version at The Westin breakfast buffet in paris, brioche, or even french toast (like the epic version at Baker & Banker).

This bread pudding had all that, and more.

It was served hot and fresh, clearly not just warmed up, but actually baked right then, to order, in the oven.  Big points there.  It had a little scoop of ice cream on top, that, even though the bread pudding was hot, wasn't just a melted mess.  More points.

This bread pudding was actually unlike any I've ever had before.  It was almost like a more typical bread pudding crossed with crème brûlée (oh, yeah, another favorite dessert item of mine with its own label on my blog).  It even came served in a crème brûlée style ramekin.  It did have distinct chunks of bread (check).  The bread used was croissant (bonus points).  The top was crispy (check).  But the inside went beyond just a great moisture and custard level ... it really was almost like crème brûlée pudding inside, if that makes any sense.  The custard was intensely vanilla flavored, with visible specs of vanilla bean.  It was absolutely delicious.

This is called "chocolate croissant bread pudding", and, there was a little chocolate inside, all very well melted, but the chocolate was not a feature, nor dominant component.  If I had wanted a chocolate dessert, I would have felt led astray, but this was actually what I wanted.

The ice cream itself was rather unremarkable, but it melted in well, and provided even more creaminess.  The bread pudding was so phenomenal though, that I actually didn't think it needed it, and that is seriously saying something.  I *always* want whipped cream or ice cream with my desserts!

The caramel was just a little drizzle on top of the ice cream scoop that added a touch more sweetness.  Again, had I really cared about caramel, I might have been disappointed, but this was not a problem.

This was entirely magically, one of the best desserts I've had this year, and although fairly simple, just totally delicious.  We devoured it and ordered another instantly.  I could have finished one myself with no problem

Visit #2, Lunch, June 2017

A month later, my work group had an all day working meeting, and when it came to lunch time, we decided to go out rather than eat at the office.  We made this decision at 12:05pm, with a group of 9.  We didn't want to go far though, as we didn't have much time.  Um, yeah.  Our neighborhood is made up of fast casual places with no seating, or nice restaurants for power lunches.  Um, yeah.

Chaya came to mind, mostly because it was close (1.5 blocks) and I know it is kinda off the radar.  Plus, to be honest, I was still dreaming about that bread pudding.  I called over, and they said they could seat us on the patio, which seemed fine, given the mild weather.  When we arrived, we were offered a table inside instead, which we took.
Lunch: Small Plate, Side Dish, Dessert, Coffee.
Food was ... ok.  Dessert still good.  Service was not great.

It took a very long time to receive our sparkling water.  When our bottle ran out, no refill was offered.  Random dishes were left out of strange periods of time, like, when the main dishes were cleared, and my plate was left even after dessert menus were handed out.  Then my knife was left after everything else was cleared.  The person pouring ice water spilled water nearly every time he filled a glass, and even dropped ice cubes onto the table, and failed to do anything about it.  "Free ice!", one diner exclaimed, but, really, come on.  Who wanted a puddle of water in the middle of the table?
Menus.
The lunch menu is more low-key than the dinner menu, but still quite large.  It caters to a wide variety of interests, likely geared towards business lunches, so your sushi lover, foodie, and just-give-me-a-burger guy can call dine in harmony.

The first page started with the opulent seafood platters, filled with lobster, oysters, shrimp, sashimi, and scallops, available for an individual (for $39!), or group.  Again, expense accounts targeted here.

That page also had small plates, many of which are also on the dinner menu, including shrimp cocktail, scallop ceviche, sashimi, tuna tartare, and more.  Mostly raw seafood preps, although there was also a token salad.

Inside the menu was an insert with the daily specials, the soup of the day, and the bento box offerings.

The second full menu page started with sushi rolls (no individual nigiri or sashimi available at lunch), all fairly complicated, filled with things like aioli and tempura, rather than simple classics.  Next up was large plates, full size entrees, like king salmon, the aforementioned burger and fries, and a token vegetarian pasta dish.  The savory menu was rounded out with three sides: fries (er, pommes frites with togarashi dip), tempura cauliflower, and classic edamame.

A full dessert menu is also offered at lunch (phew!), and included the bread pudding, several cakes (dark chocolate, strawberry chiffon, matcha apricot almond), ice cream and sorbet, and, cheese.

Our group wasn't interested in sharing any small plates, sushi, or sides, which I found a bit odd.  Of our group of 9, 4 went for the bento, 3 went for donburi, one for the burger, and then there was me.  I opted for a small plate + side to make up a meal, which was more than enough (plus dessert, of course).
Small Plate: Tako Tacos. $10.
"Braised Spanish octopus, green papaya, avocado, cotija."

The tako tacos were at the top of my list of dishes I was interested in trying at Chaya, besides the happy hour only unagi dog.

I adore octopus, particularly grilled octopus, and I hoped this would be a really fun way to enjoy some.

The small plate came with three portions, not quite "tacos" (not that I was actually wanting, nor expecting, real tacos).

The shell was ... really strange.  Cut into triangles, which made it impossible to eat.  You couldn't just fold it in half and eat like a taco.  It made no sense, honestly.  The amount of filling was also far too generous to fold up, even if the thing was a better shape.  The shell was also ... gross.  It was really greasy, spongy.  Almost more like a really bad, too thick, crepe.  Or Indian paratha.  This was not a good component.

The filling was a green payaya, cabbage, and carrot slaw, covered in a way too sweet dressing.  I liked the green papaya, but this stuff was just way too sweet.  It was also really wet, making the already greasy, soggy, shell even more moist.

The octopus, which was really why I ordered it, was ... boring.  It wasn't rubbery I guess, but it also wasn't really grilled nor charred, had no flavor imparted on it.  The serving was generous however.

On top was a scattering of cotija cheese, which was entirely lost.  I'm kinda glad, as I don't think cheese and octopus would go together very well.

Since I'm allergic to avocado, I had that left off.  The garnish was a slice of radish and jalapeño on each, plus slices of lime that I repurposed for my water.

Overall, this just wasn't very good.  Greasy soggy shell, too sweet slaw, flavorless octopus, and messy and impossible to eat.  It really, really needed a creamy component as well, which perhaps the avocado would have provided?

I ate the too-sweet slaw, and salvaged the octopus and dunked it in the aioli that came with my other dish, but, yeah, not a winner.  The $10 price was reasonable though, as the filling really was quite generous.
Side: Tempura Cauliflower / Vidalia Onion Aioli. $9.
Since I wanted more than just the tacos, I also opted to get the tempura cauliflower side dish, assuming others at the table would help me out.

It was ... unremarkable.  I expected a thicker tempura batter, this was extremely light, barely there.  It wasn't seasoned.  So, basically, just some cooked cauliflower.

In the mix was also raw slices of pepper, and random garnish like a sprig of mint.  And more lime.

I'm a serious sauce girl, so I was excited for the aioli, "vidalia onion aioli", at that.  It was ... just aioli.  Creamy, sure, but I didn't taste any onion.

The vessel for the aioli was also more narrow than many pieces of cauliflower, so you couldn't dunk most of the pieces.  I feel like they just didn't think about the actual eating experience of some of these dishes.

I offered this up to my table, a few people tried some, but, it went unfinished.  Also meh.
Chaya's Bento. $29.
"Three or four components, daily house medley."
  • Appetizer: Little Gem Lettuce, Radish, Puffed Wild Black Rice, Champagne Vinaigrette.
  • Sushi: Tuna & Salmon Temari & Spicy Tuna Roll.
  • From the Sea: Pan Roasted Petrale Sole, Sauteed Kale, Summer Succotash, Salsa Verde.
  • From the Land: Grilled Chicken Breast, Beet Greens, German Butterball Potatoes.
The lunch menu always includes a bento special, with the option of 3 dishes for $24, or 4 for $29.  Most of my colleagues went for this option.  For those who wanted the 3 component selection, they had to choose between chicken or fish.

I didn't have any of this, but, I have to comment on something I saw here, besides just the obviously non-bento plating.

The sushi.  The sushi was ... round?! This is the first time I've ever seen this, and, it turns out, is totally a thing, called temari, sushi balls, served at parties and special occasions.  It just looked so wrong to me, but I applaud them for introducing us to this.
Decaf Coffee.
To go with my dessert, I ordered a decaf coffee.

It was pre-brewed, dispensed from a big vat in the corner of the room that was never refilled during our time, so, not very fresh, likely brewed before service.  I had it at nearly 2pm, but, honestly, it wasn't bad.

It was served in a large mug, with sweeteners, sugar cubes, and a little thing of milk alongside.  It was fine.
Dessert: Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding / Vanilla Ice Cream / Caramel Sauce. $12.
The saving grace of the meal?  Dessert.

I went there knowing this is why I was going, but, still, I was worried it wouldn't live up.  

I spoke so highly of it that our group was quite boring.  We had 7 people order dessert, 6 of us got this, and one just got a bowl of housemade ice cream.

I wish I had taken a photo of all 6, as they actually all looked a bit different.  The one I was served had the most visible chocolate, right on top.  Since I wasn't actually excited for the chocolate component, I switched with someone else.
Dessert: still a winner.
This one was also more photogenic, with a visible croissant swirl on top.

It was just as good as I remembered.  Served at the perfect fresh-from-the-oven temperature.  The consistency was again amazing, sooo much like pudding or crème brûlée inside, with soft croissant in the custard, and crispy croissant on top.  Remarkable textures really, and again, unlike anything I'd ever had before.

The others agreed, it wasn't really anything like a bread pudding, but, they liked it.

The ice cream was clearly added right as it was served, as it arrives barely melty, even though the bread pudding is hot.  It melted in nicely, adding a cold contrast to the warm pudding, more creaminess, and something to cut the sweetness of the pudding itself.  I found out that the ice cream is actually made in house.

The little tiny drizzle of caramel I felt was actually too much sweet.  The pudding itself is so sweet that you just don't need this in addition.

So yes, this was still delicious.  But ... it is too much for one person, really.  It is too rich, too sweet.  I found myself not appreciating it near the end, and getting sick of it.  So rather than finishing with a smile on my face, it was a bit of an "ugh".  Of course, I still finished it, and licked my ramekin clean, but, I really do recommend splitting with someone, or, just getting this, and not a meal alongside perhaps.
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