On the Table: Vegetables, fresh fish, unusual ingredients elevate Chaya's Japanese meals

A friend who graduated from Carnegie Mellon University at least a decade ago speaks fondly of a sushi club he started with friends who were enthusiastic but knew very little about sushi.

As students, they would dine out once a month, with chefs as guides who taught them the basics. Start with mild or citrus-laced fish and move into rich flavors. Use ginger as a palate cleanser. No need for chopsticks with nigiri; simply pick up a piece, turn it over and dip the fish in soy sauce.

Among places they'd visit were Kiku in Station Square, Umi in Shadyside and Hana Sushi Downtown, now closed.

Chaya Japanese Cuisine
2032 Murray Ave.
Squirrel Hill

  • Hours: 5 to 9:30 p.m. Mondays to Thursdays; 5 to 9:45 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
  • Basics: An inviting neighborhood restaurant, Chaya offers sushi and authentic Japanese dishes for first-timers to adventurous diners.
  • Dishes: Tsukemono, ohitashi, chawanmushi, fried chicken, hotaruika, kampachi collar, kaninabe or kamonabe hot pot, various sashimi and sushi selections.
  • Prices: Nigiri $2.50 to $8, sushi rolls $3.25 to $15, appetizers $4.50 to $14.50, omakase, sushi and sashimi combination dinners $19 to $114, tempura $15 to $21; cutlets $14 to $23, teriyaki $15 to $22, broiled fish $13 to $19; noodles $14 to $22, rice bowls $14 to $23, hot pots $24 to $27, tsukemono pickles $2 to $8.25.
  • Summary: Credit cards, street parking, BYOB.
  • Noise level: Quiet.

A Squirrel Hill staple since 2001, Chaya became his favorite place and still is, which is why I met him there on a weeknight several months ago. I've returned several times since.

I've grown to like Chaya, but not just for the sushi. I'm interested in the selection of appetizers, tempura, noodles and hot pots, a multipage menu with a range that rivals a diner. And like a diner, Chaya serves homestyle fare, although here it's simple but tailored Japanese cuisine with plenty of vegetables, fresh fish and unusual ingredients.

Chaya means "tea shop," although it offers only green tea and oolong. In the dining room, blond wood tables sit close together, separated by screens and bamboo accents.

A sushi bar in the back is decorated with flags and Japanese paraphernalia, including a Hello Kitty statue, the white cartoon bobtail cat wearing a bow. Here you'll find the owner and executive chef, Fumio Yasuzawa. He was in Tokyo until 1975, then moved to a Manhattan hotel, where he cooked from 1975 to 1996. He stayed in the New York area until 1999.

Tables are first-come, first-served with the exception of the sushi-centric omakase menu or the nabemono menu with a hot pot or shabu shabu course. Both require a reservation with two days' notice.

Otherwise, the wait can be 20 minutes to more than an hour, which is saying something when a restaurant has been around for well over a decade. It's worth the wait here.

At the start of a meal, a server dressed in a kimono delivers tea to the table as well as a hot hand towel wrapped in plastic. As you peruse the menu, start with the tsukemono ($8.25). The assortment of pickles is a bright presentation of quarter-sized Japanese cucumbers, yellow diakon, half-sweet burdock root and earthy wood-ear mushrooms. With pickles on just about every stylish menu around town, these are standouts.

Also try the ohitashi ($5.25), leaves of spinach pressed into a square. Although the room temperature greens taste undersalted, layer them with a bite of bonito flakes and dip greens into the salty dashi.

The savory custard, chawanmushi, is a little cup of comfort food with shrimp, ginkgo nuts and lily root and seasoned with mirin and soy ($5.75). Or stick with a more familiar bite and texture, such as fried chicken ($5.50) with super crispy skin, served with a slice of lime.

Appetizers labeled "advanced Japanese cuisine" have a double star on the menu. They include the pillowy sea urchin garnished with nori ($9.75) or the more exotic hotaruika ($5.50), tiny, raw squid traditionally served in the spring.

Funky variations on natto ($4.75-$6.75) start with fermented soybeans that taste like cheese and nuts. Each bite will emerge with spiderweb-like strings. A word of warning: natto is pungent and has been compared to the smell of old socks.

The entrees are more approachable, such as chicken or pork cutlets ($16-$23) served with fried chicken, salad, rice and soup. I find the broiled fish more interesting, such as the yellowtail or kampachi collar ($16-$19 as a dinner). With a large bone, a collar can be imposing but they're meaty and flavorful. Don't be afraid to use your fingers.

But my favorite entrees are the hot pots such as the kamonabe ($24 to $27 as a dinner) with duck. The soup is beautiful, with match sticks of young scallions beside tiny enoki mushrooms. Greens lie against shitakes and squares of tofu, with cabbage tucked along the edge of the pot. Duck breast rests beneath these vegetables, with thick, springy udon noodles to anchor the bowl. It's one of the most pleasing soups in Pittsburgh.

And as for that sushi and sashimi? It warrants a visit unto itself for simple, fresh and often very good fish. I prefer hamachi (yellowtail) maguro (bigeye tuna) or unagi (eel) nigiri over the Pittsburgh roll ($15) or the red devil roll ($18) layered with multiple ingredients.

No matter the order, Chaya offers a compelling menu, whether you have been a patron for years or your visits have just begun.


Hot Topic