By all rights, the place should feel dated but isn't in the least. After some 26 years (it opened in 1984), the Chaya brand is still going strong with Chaya Venice, Chaya San Francisco and the newish Chaya in downtown L.A., plus several macrobiotic M Café de Chaya cafes in the Los Angeles area.
This year Chaya Venice celebrates its 20th anniversary. How time flies. The more casual, beachy version of Chaya has always been my least favorite of the restaurants, though. With its rowdy bar scene and stripped-down menu, Chaya Venice often seemed like a dumbed-down version of the original. Not only that, in the past, I've had some strikingly bad meals, flawed by sloppy cooking. But it's held in affectionate regard by fans who remember when it was one of the few places to eat by the beach.
Now that there are more choices in Venice area, including Caché down the street, it seemed time for a birthday update. And I was happy to discover that, even after all these years, the restaurant is better than it has been in a long time.
A few months ago, the restaurant closed for a remodel. (In the interim, which amounted to a few weeks, a pop-up takeout Chaya appeared down the street so the faithful wouldn't go hungry.) To tell the truth, when I went in to check out the new Chaya Venice, I could hardly tell where the work began and ended, the changes were so discreet, the equivalent of a skilled plastic surgeon's work on an actress who swears she hasn't had a face-lift. I came in expecting something dramatic, but the room just looked fresher or more "rested."
The lighting is subtly altered and introduces a contemporary chandelier with twining arms that doubles as a light-tipped sculpture. Everything has had a new lick of paint, and the goofy rice-paper lamps in the shape of starfish and lobster and scallop shells have been rehung above the bar.
The changes aren't all in the decor, though, There's a new energy in the kitchen too under chef de cuisine Yuichi Natori. Not that the menu has suddenly gotten more interesting: It's very close to what it has always been — casual French-Japanese cuisine — but it's better executed than before. And in general I like the food more.
Sashimi is really fresh and good, the quality of hamachi and albacore or sweet shrimp you'd get at a high-end sushi bar, and served with sharp, fragrant pickled ginger. Nigiri sushi is precision-tooled too, the rice skillfully molded into a small oval, the toppings artfully cut. Silvery Spanish mackerel, uni and hamachi taste bright and fresh. And for the money, you can't go wrong with a salmon skin or spicy tuna roll with a cold beer, the default order with the bar crowd.
The best seats are at the back of the dining room, a few capacious curved booths well away from the bar scene and the shouting every time somebody's team scores.
Waiters at Chaya Venice are top-notch, familiar with the menu, not shy about an informed opinion and intent on really taking care of the table instead of just saying that's going to happen. On a Tuesday night, we had no idea every bottle of wine was half off until our waiter told us. We felt like we'd won the lottery. So did the table next door, and we both took the opportunity to drink up, ordering a better bottle of wine than we would have normally. In our case, it was a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet for $51 that would normally have been $102. Fun.
Appetizers are straightforward — burrata with roasted cherry tomatoes, a standard beef carpaccio or a pretty salad made with fresh greens. I like the more unusual salad of white anchovies with velvety strips of piquillo pepper, sliced celery and Parmesan shavings. Vietnamese spring rolls seem too bland in comparison, but fresh.
The kitchen does an excellent job of frying. Vegetable tempura — asparagus, shiitake, squash and eggplant, among other things — has a wonderfully lacy batter and isn't a bit greasy, though I'm not so sure about the spicy miso dipping sauce as opposed to a ponzu. It follows that fried squid is nice and crunchy too, revved up with a spicy mustard sauce.
The chef must love his mustard — Dijon and otherwise — because it is woven through the menu. The brasserie's best-known dish is Dijon chicken, and it's on the menu here too. Basically, it's grilled free-range chicken in a cream and Dijon mustard sauce that mixes with the chicken's juices. Add in some frites, and it makes a reliably delicious supper.
Grilled Black Angus rib-eye is another classic. The beef has plenty of flavor. It's beautifully grilled, and a three-peppercorn sauce adds the punctuation.
The quality of the seafood is excellent, so this is one place by the beach where you can eat good fish. Maybe the unctuous black cod glazed with soy or a whole fish simply grilled. I prefer whitefish grilled Tuscan style, which here means with mustard and herbs. The alternative, mushrooms with soy sauce and bacon, has too many strong flavors competing against the fish.
Bouillabaisse and paella Valenciana are both just OK — not bad, but not thrilling either. In the case of the bouillabaisse, probably it's that the seafood available here on the West Coast doesn't have the same flavors as fish from the Mediterranean. What's missing are the bony rascasse and other fish that give the broth its characteristic punch. As these things go, it's a pleasant enough seafood soup. And as for the paella, it's just too wan.
I feel the same about the desserts, which include a Meyer lemon cheesecake tart and a fallen chocolate cake with raspberry sauce of the sort that was popular in the early years of California cuisine. That's about right, actually. Even the hot fudge sundae is retro, made with a chocolate sauce that's more like syrup than a thick luscious sauce that hardens the minute it hits the ice cream.
Despite its recent update, Chaya Venice remains a time capsule where you can revisit how we used to eat in L.A. 20 years ago when French-Japanese cuisine was all the rage. Back when a good restaurant by the beach was still a rarity.
1 1/2 stars
110 Navy St. (at Main Street), Venice; (310) 396-1179; http://www.thechaya.com
Dinner starters, $7 to $13; pasta, $18 to $20; main courses, $19 to $49; desserts, $9. Corkage fee, $20.
Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday and for dinner 6 to 10:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday and 6 to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday. Full bar. Valet parking or self-park at bottom level of building, $3 with validation.