Japanese restaurants in America typically offer a wide variety of foods that in Japan would all be served at different, more specialized restaurants. As Japanese food, especially sushi, has grown more popular over the years, many of these restaurants have grown to resemble each other, offering the same streamlined list of sushi, teriyaki and tempura followed by mochi or green tea ice cream.
Chaya Japanese Cuisine, at a new location in Squirrel Hill, does offer up these standards, but its extensive menu includes a number of more unusual, and often more delicious, options. The new location, about a block from the old, is more spacious, with a better layout, encouraging diners to linger longer over multi-course Japanese feasts.
Assembling a meal from the wide array of small plates in the appetizer section is one of the most interesting and pleasurable ways to dine at Chaya.
Tiny shimeji mushrooms were sauteed with a touch of butter and soy sauce and lots of black pepper, then served with a wedge of lemon, a sprig of parsley and a small dish of vinegar-based sauce. These subtle seasonings let the sweet, woodsy flavor of the mushrooms shine through.
Chawanmushi ($5.50, minimum order of two), steamed egg custard, came in a lidded porcelain bowl that released a puff of steam as the top was removed. The delicate custard broke into shards at the touch of a spoon, releasing pools of a slightly saline broth. Chawnmushi is often flavored with dashi, a broth made from kelp and flakes of a particular dried, smoked fish. As I ate, small treasures appeared: A perfectly poached shrimp, a chunk of moist chicken, and at the very bottom, a thin piece of scalloped fish cake.
Exquisite knife skills were on display in a dish of Japanese cucumbers ($6) served with a thick, coral-colored miso paste. Small triangular cuts along the surface of cucumber wedges gave them a porcupine-like surface, perfect for scooping up bits of the salty-sweet miso.
Chilled tofu is served on ice ($4). The large block of tofu, so soft it's most easily scooped up with a spoon, came with a plate of assorted garnishes including green onions, spicy grated ginger and shredded dried seaweed. Chaya's warm and attentive service staff are happy to answer, so if you're wondering what those pink flakes are (bonito, the same kind of smoked, dried fish in dashi broth), go ahead and ask.
Heartier options included tender pork and cabbage gyoza dumplings with crispy browned, paper-thin wrappers, or a plate of giant oysters, fried in their shells and served with cold steamed broccoli and a Japanese mayonnaise ($9). Chopsticks were surprisingly useful for the oysters, although the satisfaction of digging them out of their shells was slightly superior to the pleasure of eating these somewhat tough specimens.
2 stars = Very good
2032 Murray Ave.
- Hours: Monday-Thursday, 5-9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5-9:45 p.m.
- Basics: Chaya offers a wide array of Japanese cuisine with emphasis on artful appetizers and high-quality sushi and sashimi. The plain, comfortable dining room is larger and more welcoming at the restaurant's new location.
- Recommended dishes: Shimeji mushroom appetizer, Japanese cucumber, chawanmushi; sushi and rolls: ama ebi, hotate, ika, uni, sunrise spider and avocado roll; soba noodles with dipping sauce.
- Prices: Nigiri, $2.50-24; rolls, $3-16; appetizers, $4-14; entrees, $12-23; kaiseki, hot pot and omekase multi-course dinners start at $47 per person.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations accepted only for kaiseki and omekase meals; BYOB, corkage $2 per glass, plus additional charge for ice buckets.
- Noise level: Low to medium loud.
The availability of some appetizers and sushi and sashimi options changes with the seasons, so a little flexibility is necessary. It's a good idea to ask your server, or sushi chef Fumio Yasuzawa, what's special, or especially good, that day. One evening our server directed us toward a smaller kind of ama ebi -- a sweet shrimp where the tail is served raw and the head is served fried. They have the large kind all the time, she explained, but the small ones were available only at certain times of year.
Our server also was able to give us good information about the geographic source of the seafood, which makes choosing sustainable fish slightly easier at Chaya than at many Japanese restaurants.
Fish and seafood of the highest quality were arranged with beautiful attention to their rainbow colors. It would be nice if fresh shiso leaves could be used, instead of the plastic green dividers that seem more suitable to grocery store sushi than Mr. Yasuzawa's artfully arranged platters.
Yellowtail (hamachi, $3) and bluefin tuna belly nigiri (toro, $4.25-4.75) were delicious, and an array of mollusks was particularly memorable for its distinct textures and flavors. Scallop nigiri (hotate, $7) were messy and sweet, while giant clam (mirugai, $4) was firm, with a flavor like inhaling a lungful of sweet, salty marine air. Squid (ika, $3) was deeply, diagonally scored, allowing one to easily bite though the tough muscle and experience the clean sweetness of its flavor without distraction.
The sunrise spider and avocado roll ($14) was an exceptional example of soft-shell crab rolls. The crab was very thinly battered, so the tempura provided crunch without overwhelming the crab's sweet flavor. The contrast between the earthy avocado, the sweet crab and the salty fish eggs made each bite taste indulgent.
Sushi and sashimi combinations, as well as most entrees, are available either a la carte or, for a few extra dollars, served with fried chicken or edamame, miso soup and a salad of greens in a gingery dressing. The chunks of fried chicken were quite tasty ("the best chicken nuggets I've ever had," as one guest described them) but the miso soup and greens were ordinary. They are an inexpensive way of having a more filling, but less interesting, meal.
The entree menu offers a variety of decent, but not extraordinary Japanese restaurant standards, including the usual assortment of teriyaki and tempura. There are also some less familiar flavors, such as chilled soba noodles with grated mountain potato ($16). Our server explained that this nutritious vegetable is frequently eaten in Japan, but that people who weren't used to it often found the texture unpleasant. Assured that we wanted an authentic experience, she instructed us to season the soy-based dipping sauce with green onions and grated fresh ginger, then to mix the potato with the noodles, and dip them into the sauce. The potato has a delicate flavor similar to jicama, but the texture is a little off-putting -- thick and gelatinous, it is similar to a warm porridge, only cold and a bit slippery.
Broiled kampachi (a fish similar to yellowtail) collar ($12) was also a good option, and less typical of local Japanese restaurants. This bony wedge of fish imparts lots of flavor to the flesh, which also stays quite moist. The collar was served with steamed rice and grated daikon radish. A slice of lemon, which often accompanies this dish, would have been a good addition.
Dessert is not emphasized at Chaya, and the two offerings aren't made in house. Green tea ice cream bonbons rolled in powdered green tea were tastier and more interesting than slightly flavorless mochi ($3.50).
Despite the lackluster ending, Chaya distinguishes itself as one of Pittsburgh's best Japanese restaurants and one of its most interesting restaurants overall.
China Millman: 412-263-1198 or email@example.com . Follow her at twitter.com/chinamillman. First Published April 1, 2010 4:00 AM