Small plates, in whatever iteration, are now as firmly entrenched in the American dining scene as the three-course meal or the tasting menu --the very strictures from which small plates are supposed to free us. And yet, few restaurants seem capable of offering these loosely defined dishes without becoming unhinged by them, deeming suitable anything that can fit on a small plate.
Not so at Kaya, where the menu is constructed from both tropas -- a contraction of tropical and tapas -- and entradas -- more traditional entrees. The menu is fairly large and impressively varied, but a common theme imposes order: Latin American, Southeast Asian and Caribbean flavors are explored, reinterpreted and woven together to form an impressive tapestry -- fusion at its very best.
Even the simplest starter, such as the Yucatan Hot Bean Dip ($7), demonstrates the kitchen's ability to reinterpret staid classics with subtle twists that enhance them, but don't take them too far away from their beginnings. Rather than the smooth, pasty dip once popular at parties, this version has a slightly chunky texture, which gives it heft, while a thin layer of Monterey Jack cheese and good quality parmesan cheese mixed into the dip itself give it brightness. Thin, crisp house-made potato chips are the perfect accompaniment.
Other dishes are far more intricate, pulling together influences from multiple countries into a balanced, innovative dish, such as the grilled salmon paired with corn pancakes called cachapas from Venezuela, cucumber sambal, a Southeast Asian condiment, and "corn nuts" that immediately bring Peru to mind. Each of these components is mouthwatering -- especially the savory corn pancakes, which I would eat at any meal of the day -- but together they are more than the sum of their parts, as crisp textures play off of soft bites, some enhancing the sweetness of the salmon, others offering a sour relief from its rich mouthfeel.
3 stars = Excellent
- Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday, 12-9 p.m.
- Basics: Latin, Caribbean and occasionally Southeast-Asian flavors are the heart of this mouthwatering menu. Kaya's fantastic food, thirst-quenching libations and sexy atmosphere attract Pittsburghers and out-of-towners of all kinds. Where else do vegan hipsters rub shoulders with suit-wearing business people?
- Recommended dishes: Lentil and Corn Beignets, Sweet and Spicy Baby Back Ribs, Gazpacho, Tofu Cracklins, Avocado Tempura, Three Salads, Yucatan Hot Bean Dip, North American Halibut, Grilled Scottish Salmon, Jerk Pulled Pork Quesadilla, Grilled Asparagus Torta, Banana Chocolate Bread Pudding, Dulce de Leche Creme Brulee.
- Prices: Tropas (small plates), $5-12; entradas (entrees), $9-$28; desserts, $6.50; Wine by the glass starts at $6, by the bottle starts at $24.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; nonsmoking; park on street; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage, $10.
- Noise level: Extremely loud.
Accompaniments to North American Halibut ($28) played a similarly provocative role. One bite of crisp yucca fries will make you forget all about the potato version, and the subtle, vegetable sweetness of edamame, corn and hominy played up the sweetness of the fish. Jalapeno creme fraiche was a brilliant finish -- this lean fish benefits from an infusion of fat, which also contributed a controlled heat to the dish.
One of the qualities that makes Kaya stand out from other restaurants in Pittsburgh is the variety and quality of vegetarian and vegan food on the menu, food that proves meat is not always a necessary component of flavor or richness.
The Avocado Tempura ($7) is the closest I've come to a vegetarian equivalent of pork belly. The warm avocado, with its high fat content, coats the mouth with its corpulent flavor and luscious texture. A chile soy sauce and tomatillo salsa add a salty-sour flavor equivalent in effect to bacon's salty-umami punch.
A refreshing tomato Gazpacho ($7), currently made with local tomatoes, had just the right hint of spiciness to make every bite exciting; a salad trio was a stellar interpretation of Middle Eastern classics: Walnuts gave an interesting hint of bitterness to creamy hummus; a more refined tabbouleh replaced bulgur with quinoa and inverted the traditional ratio of grain to tomato, cucumber and parsley; and a roasted eggplant salad with chopped tomato and green pepper was a more flavorful, interesting addition than the typical baba ghanoush.
That's not to say that there weren't entrancing options in other food groups as well. The meat of Sweet and Spicy Baby Back Ribs ($9) lifted cleanly off the bones. Tender, with edges crispy, these ribs had a complex spiciness that sneaked up on you, offsetting the sticky-sweetness of the glaze that could have been cloying. These ribs more than justify getting your hands dirty.
A quesadilla of jerk pulled pork ($13) could have used more salt in the meat, but the spicy slaw and cucumber aioli added complexity to a dish that is dumbed down far too often.
Components of dishes were occasionally underseasoned, and a few complex plates never quite came together, but nothing came close to being a total failure. The Adobo Marinated Flank Steak with chilled Peruvian black beans, shaved jicama salad, avocado aji sauce and Reyna's tortillas ($24) needed either a more assertive sauce or perhaps warm black beans to help the flavors combine. The Shrimp Fritters ($8) tasted far more of fritter than of shrimp. For the most part, though, the passion and talent in the kitchen is coming through.
Chef Danielle Cain is still relatively new to Kaya, where she started at the end of February, but she's spent time as the sous chef at Casbah and Soba, other Big Burrito restaurants. Clearly, she has things well in hand. One of the most impressive aspects of the consistency and range of this kitchen, as well as the coordinated efforts of its servers, is that despite a disproportionately small kitchen, no matter how crowded the restaurant became, food arrived at the proper temperature, at a reasonable pace.
Chef Cain also oversees desserts, which are what are known as "kitchen desserts," because Kaya doesn't have a pastry chef. Chocolate and banana bread pudding ($6.50) is awesome. Every bite was a perfect triumvirate of luscious dark chocolate, chunks of warm banana and custard-soaked bread. A thick creme anglaise was zig-zagged across the top. Dulce de leche creme brulee ($6.50) was all that a creme brulee should be. The caramelized sugar crust was a glossy, caramel color and gave a satisfying crack when broken with a spoon, and the thin layer of custard was intensely flavored without being too sweet.
The continued leadership of general manager Monika Berwein-Banks certainly helped smooth the transition between executive chefs and has played an invaluable role in maintaining Kaya's quality and high standards over the years.
Though Kaya is certainly an informal restaurant, servers are solid and unobtrusive, if occasionally abrupt, and impressively adept at taking orders and answering questions despite loud conversations and louder music that occasionally create a noise level just under deafening.
The restaurant has been around for more than a decade, and while the food and drink have evolved -- in fact, many Pittsburgh restaurants could take an important lesson from Kaya's ability to change with the times but still maintain its identity -- the decor has stayed the same. This lack of change should be a problem, but it's not. The dining room is long and narrow with a bar along one side, tables along the other. The focus on the bar isn't accidental; Kaya pays more attention to drinks than most restaurants, with a reasonable wine list, some interesting beers, and some of the better cocktails in the city. Kaya is also one of very few places that list nonalcoholic cocktails on the menu.
Kaya's decor walks a fine line between trendy and kitchy without crossing over. Exposed brick, carved wooden masks, mock-palm-tree stools, and vibrant hangings help create an atmosphere that is fun and stylish without being pretentious.
The food is fantastic, but the atmosphere is almost as big a draw. While there is a time and a place for an intimate dinner, in Pittsburgh, quiet, half-empty restaurants are far too easy to find. If you're looking for a crowd, chances are there is one at Kaya.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1198.