Walking along Flower St. next to high-rise buildings, I was lured into CHAYA Downtown’s Japanese Beer Garden by the enticing smell from the hibachi grill. Yakitori skewers of chicken, beef, shrimp, shiitake mushrooms and bacon wrapped dates seductively perfumed the outdoor dining patio.
We promptly ordered a variety of skewers, with three pieces of juicy meat on a wooden stick. The tender beef is slowly cooked and served with a slightly sweet miso barbecue sauce and dab of horseradish cream. A couple of these beauties at $2 a skewer and a cool jar of my newest favorite summer cocktail, sake sangria, could easily suffice as an ideal after work or pre theater meal.
The recently opened outdoor Japanese Beer Garden offers Kirin beer at a bargain at $3 a pint of $10 a pitcher. All the Izakaya (a popular place in Japan for after work drinking) items on the menu are between $5 to $9. Happy Hour is 5 p.m. to closing every night.
We ordered the heavenly sea scallops splashed with a creamy miso gratin on a bed of spinach and were delighted when an entire ear of grilled white corn topped with feta cheese and a slightly spicy jalapeno aioli arrived. It was cut into four smaller pieces to easily pick up and nibble.
Sitting outside reminded us of living in New York and Washington D.C., as we felt the energy of young executives going out after a hard day’s work to celebrate the end of a work week. The vibe is lively and fun.
Brightly colored Japanese lanterns are strung around the garden adding pizzazz outside. Gold painted wicker baskets cast a golden glow in the garden.
Chef de Cuisine, Kazuya Matsuoka, strolled by our table. We struck up a conversation about Japan, and learned that his parents were home when the recent 9.0 earthquake hit near the coast of Honshu, Japan.
“My parents had no electricity and were evacuated for one night. Many people still have no electricity, and are still looking for missing family members,” Matsuoka said.
Many employees of CHAYA, a Japanese company with ancient family roots, continue to donate money to the Japanese Embassy. “One hundred percent of the money donated is given back to Japan to help the people,” Matsuoka said.
We ordered one Bento Box to share while listening to Asian techno pop music. The six items box contains one appetizer, one salad, one sashimi, one sushi, one fish and a meat dish. Every night there are different items in the box. The evening we dined, the salad was a work of art with arugula lettuce and crispy goat cheese in a white balsamic with tiny pieces of Fuji apples and walnuts. In another section, oysters tempura came with chili miso on the side. The grilled N.Y. Angus steak with a wasabi brown butter sauce rested on a scoop of sweet mashed potatoes. For the fish course, a nice sized piece of halibut sat on a bed of verdant baby bok choy with a cilantro pepper yuzu (citrus) sauce.
Some Japanese restaurants lack creativity in their desserts, not so at CHAYA. They offer a caramelized banana tart with house-made banana ice cream mixed with fresh market berries and a chocolate covered banana on top. It’s beyond delicious.
In California, there are CHAYA restaurants in Venice, Beverly Hills, Downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each are very different from one another, yet all offer the same philosophies of creating Japanese cuisine with a French flair in a friendly and hospitable environment.
Try CHAYA for their Wine and Dine Sundays with a $25 four-course tasting menu on Sundays and bottles of wine at a 50% discount.
Parking is located at the City National Parking Plaza garage. A private elevator will take you directly up to CHAYA. $$ 525 S. Flower St. (213)236-9577.