On the Table: With a new chef, Kaya is making adjustments in the kitchen but remains engaging
September 27, 2012 4:47 AM
Clockwise from left, executive chef Benjamin Sloan's fish tacos, avocado soup and fried chicken with sides at Kaya in the Strip District.
By Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Fried chicken isn't hard to find, but it used to be. Quelling a craving meant a slink to Colonel Sanders.
The dearth of fried chicken abated in 2007, when influential California chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry pulled fried chicken into the realm of dressed-down fine dining at Ad Hoc, the accessible Yountville sibling to his foodist Mecca.
"Fried chicken is a great American tradition that's fallen out of favor," he wrote in the Ad Hoc cookbook. This proclamation inspired chef-driven restaurants around the country from French bistros to Asian noodle houses to serve the bird.
Here in Pittsburgh, Kaya filled the fried chicken niche in 2010, when Sean Ehland was executive chef. Twenty birds for 40 orders ensured Thursday nights were bumping at the 40-seat restaurant in the Strip.
Kaya still draws a crowd in 2012, where new executive chef Benjamin Sloan took the helm in July. The 28-year-old is a Big Burrito alum, having worked his way up the line at the nearby Eleven for the past seven years, departing as sous chef to run his own restaurant for the group.
Early evening on a Thursday, a happy hour crowd and chickenheads packed the house. At the bar, a woman in a striped dress did a shot of Jameson with a man in wing tips and jeans. Restaurant industry folks joined regulars on a rare night out. There was a fluidity among patrons, where newcomers chatted up barflies and regulars sampled off strangers' plates with some coaxing. Customers swapped seats. Others exchanged numbers.
"Kaya offered fried chicken night when there was no one else making it in town," a diner told me as I waited for an order. My crew snagged the last one at 7:30. You'd think crowds would thin now that Pittsburghers can choose from renditions at Union Pig & Chicken in East Liberty, Meat and Potatoes, Downtown, during brunch, or a Wilkinsburg jaunt to Jean's Southern Cuisine, among others.
They have not.
At Kaya, where warm climate and Caribbean flavors dictate the menu, fried chicken evokes South of the Border rather than deep South. Served on a platter, fried bird parts nestle wing to breast beside tortillas, slaw and a spiked papaya sauce.
It's a do-it-yourself taco plate that on this night doesn't satiate. The chicken needs work. Skin is limp rather than crispy. Edges are overdone. The inside isn't cooked through. And the sides can't save it. Cabbage slaw is besodden. Mac and cheese swims in watery quadruple cheese sauce. It was an off night for the dish. Or the last order was the kitchen runt.
And yet, it's still fun to visit Kaya.
Seventeen years after the restaurant opened, Kaya remains the warhorse on the Strip, an area that has roller-coastered with economic turns, poised to rise again as the city hashes out development. An animated space among stern warehouses, Kaya may seem out of place to an outsider, with its kitschy thatched roof in the tropics motif. What's the draw?
Kaya's lore breeds loyalty among Pittsburghers. It was Big Burrito's second concept and third restaurant behind Mad Mex from Tom Baron and Juno Yoon. Back then, Big Burrito was an underdog behind monoliths such as Applebee's, with "a cult following," said Mr. Yoon in '95 when Kaya opened. Now, Big Burrito is the home-grown chain, with more than a dozen restaurants across the state.
In a departure from old-school restaurateurs, Big Burrito parsed concepts from metro areas such as New York and Miami to satiate folks craving travel to a more lively place beyond economically ravaged Pittsburgh in the late '80s, early '90s. Mr. Baron and Mr. Yoon brought them Mexico and island-life, albeit family-friendly Americanized versions with something for everyone.
Kaya also has been an incubator of culinary talent in Pittsburgh. Following stints at several prestigious restaurants in D.C., Bill Fuller was recruited to open Kaya. By 1997, Mr. Fuller had risen to become Big Burrito's corporate chef.
Mr. Fuller and company hired Kevin Sousa in 2003, who eventually went on to open his first restaurant, Salt of the Earth in 2010 with others to follow. Executive chef of Soba, Danielle Cain, ran the kitchen in 2008. And Kaya is the kitchen where Mr. Ehland was nominated as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef in 2011. He is now doing pastry at Charleston, S.C. culinary icon, McCrady's, under chef Sean Brock.
Whether Kaya will continue to play this role is in question. Like the neighborhood, Kaya is in transition. The same could be said of this restaurant group that has transformed from scrappy outlier to a civic-minded corporation with less need for innovation than the handful of independently owned chef-focused concepts opening around the city.
"We're just changing the menu now for the season," said Mr. Sloan, who has inherited a list of tropas, first courses like salmon-crab cakes and hot bean dip; sandwiches and a dozen entrees inspired by jerk seasoning, Latin American braises and tropical fruit.
Mr. Sloan said that since he arrived, his style is most evident among entrees such as swordfish marinated in citrus, habanero and scallions, grilled and served over rice cakes with sauteed peppers. Other crowd pleasers remain, such as the adobo-marinated flank steak and the Kaya burger with pickles, avocado, bacon, tomato, Chihuahua cheese and a fried egg.
Menu items and accoutrements vary by season, such as the sauce for fried chicken, which include this month's spiked papaya or last month's lime habanero concoction. Produce from the Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, McConnell's and Millers Farms drive transitions.
Booze is often the draw at Kaya. Regulars cite an interesting beer list, which includes Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA and Boulder's low-alcohol session brew, Hazed and Confused. Rum flights reward the adventurous, while there's no shortage of island-inspired cocktails.
The bartender could certainly attest drinkers here still like mojitos, as he paused to muddle and mix each cocktail. Like the mojito, cocktails lean sweet, layered with melon, coconut, guava and plenty of booze.
"Have you ever had bad service here?" a diner asked another, both frequent restaurantgoers in and around the restaurant-rich East End. On this night, service was tight, with bar staff and servers refilling drinks and tending to plates.
A popular accompaniment for cocktails are the corn and lentil beignets, a savory vegetarian-friendly fritter enticing for the donut in the name. Jerk wings offer heat, allspice and crispy skin. With a delicious, sticky sauce, an order of wings requires a handwash afterward.
Ringers for big appetites are the sandwiches like the BLT torta, a Latin variation on a panini. There's also a questionable version of the Cuban sandwich with turkey added to layers of the Miami sandwich of pork, ham, Swiss and mustard. No Cubano is such without requisite pickles, which were available upon request during a recent visit.
In the meantime, there's the call of Thursday night's fried chicken. "We're working on brining it with pickle juice," said Mr. Sloan. This encroaching variation on the Ad Hoc recipe, along with the pickleback shot of whiskey and brine, is becoming a thing.
As the kitchen makes adjustments, diners can do what they've done here for the past 17 years. Grab a barstool. Order a cocktail. And wait for the new chef to get his legs. There's enough here that's engaging, with food just a piece of Kaya's tapestry.