Chaya in Venice is my constant love. Before my first visit, I was skeptical of the concept of French-Japanese fusion cuisine. But the experience was transcendental. I became a devoted convert. The seafood was not only fresh, but the chefs knew exactly what do with it. I have been to restaurants in which the unhappy instance occured: fresh seafood was procured from a market only to have it overcooked to a heap of unrecognizable rubbery, chewy substance (even burnt & charred), buried underneath overwhelming sauce.
Or, there were the numerous times when top-grade, quality seafood was procured only to be barely cooked (to alarmingly raw conditions) and paired with a heartbreakingly underwhelming sauce. I'm not one to judge: I've also replicated disappointed experiences in my repertoire of cooking before I actually got it right. My heart cried for what it could have been, the potential lost every time this unhappy instance occurred.
And then there was the unhappy instance in which the fate was doomed from the start: the seafood was not fresh or frozen and the cook did his best to dress up the proverbial pig. Chaya is exemplary: it procures top-fresh seafood, cooks it in such a way to optimize its quality by choice of sauce & just the right amount of temperature for just the right amount of time. Though I prefer the Venice location, I've never had a bad experience at Chaya. Each location has a slightly different menu that caters to my fondness for variety.
My last visit was nothing short of stellar. I arrived to the bustling, energetic hum of a restaurant come alive. On a Saturday night, I was clearly not the only fan of Chaya. I had a glass of Pinot Noir with my dinner companion while we waited for our table. Perhaps the diners before us were savoring each magical bite that fueled fabulous conversation? One can only imagine. The Pinot Noir was excellent & mellow, which in turn, mellowed me out after an action-packed week.
Our table was soon ready & I anticipated this experience (the menu I had since changed from my last visit). We ordered Yellowtail nigri & Spicy tuna roll as an appetizer. Though I was hesitant to order these because I thought I would be tired of sushi ( I had made sushi at a Nobu workshop & eaten the sushi for lunch that day), I had to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed the sushi here at Chaya. The seafood was fresh, a must. The rice was al dente & semi-warm (which traditional Japanese sushi tradition calls for). Last but not least, the sushi was not annoyingly drowned in sauce as is the theme in many a Japanese fusion restaurant.
We both shared a plate of Soy glazed black Cod with Hijiki Garlic Brown Rice & Asparagus Tempura. The cod was fresh & subtly sweet. It didn't need my fork because it was so soft & moist. The cod melted in my mouth. I eagerly tried to scoop up every last bite with my fork and became frustrated when I couldn't do it fast enough. The Hijiki garlic brown rice was savory, exotic, and utterly delightful. This was rice with a personality, one with which I meshed perfectly with. The sweetness of the cod and savoriness of the rice complemented each other. I was not too much of a fan of the asparagus tempura. It wasn't bad but it paled in comparison to the other two elements on the plate. In this rare instance, I wish there was some sauce that the tempura came with, just a drizzle.
The Fusili Arrabiata with Sauteed Shrimp consisted of a slightly spicy, robust tomato sauce atop al dente corkscrew pasta. The Sauteed shrimp was fresh & obtained the happy medium of not too soft (indication that it's undercooked) and not too rubbery, chewy (indication that it's overcooked).
This mini world tour (with stops in Japan & the Mediterranean), proved to be just what I needed. It was all the better that it was all within one restaurant in one dinner with good company. Chaya does not disappoint & is consistently good. It is the perfect marriage of French haute cuisine & Japanese precision. Though an unlikely pair, it is one that defies all naysayers & skeptics. It culls from two traditions to transform into a pioneer of modern sensibility that is the future. Now that's something to root for!
Tags: al dente, asaparagus, brown rice, cod, corkscrew pasta, French, fusili, garlic, glaze, hijiki, Japanese, nigri, overcooked seafood, pinot noir, quality seafood, Seafood, shrimp, soy, spicy tuna roll, sushi, tempura, tomato sauce, top grade seafood, undercooked seafood, venice, yellowtail
As adults, we shoulder grievances everyday, often without being to able to vent or complain to anyone. Who do we hold responsible for traffic, that nasty, lying parking attendant, construction on streets that make us late to work, re-occuring illness, being cut off by another car, an ungrateful so-called friend, unfulfilling jobs, career setbacks, or difficult relatives? Where do we file a complaint, in this court of life? Who will answer? Life is complicated. But sometimes, just sometimes, we come across little things, that redeem the joys of life. The color is brought back to the black & white film that plays out our life, with the omniscient director at its helm. These things, whatever they may be, bring back the sparkle to our eye, that extra bounce to our step.
For me, that redemption comes in the form of Essential Chocolate Desserts in Culver City. This place makes me forget that I'm an adult (with all its dubious responsibilities & uncertain outcomes). As soon as I walk in to this little confectionary, I am transformed. I am a kid in a candy store with my heart thumping deep inside my chest. If that thumping were created by any instrument, it would be a bass drum, sure and steady. My heart has a mind of its own, devoid of reason. It jumps up & down, & whirls 360 degrees.
I stare at each concoction, mesmirised. The bright & vibrant colors are of Alice in Wonderland proportions. Katy Perry could have stocked up on these wares for her music video, "California Gurls". If I could decorate my room in this theme, I would. After several slow motion moments, I ask the guy behind the counter what each of these concoctions are. He patiently explains the ingredients within each creation & allows me to sample a custom made ice cream flavor, their signature Red Velvet, made by Lappert's ice cream in Northern California. Essential Chocolate Desserts send their red velvet cake to Lappert's so that the ice cream flavor can be made. It is hard to choose, there are macaroons, chocolates, cakes, gourmet Hostess cakes, slices of Red Velvet cake, and ice cream.
The Cookies & Cream ding dong tastes just like ice cream, save for the different temperature & the icing being atop vanilla cake. I especially liked the strategically placed Oreos on the top. One bite and I was transported to the Baskin Robbins I used to frequent as a little girl. The icing was soft & creamy, not fudgelike & saccharinely sweet like its other peers. The oreos were on the soft side as well.
The Andes mint ding dong was my favorite of the two. I also liked the Andes mints placed strategically on top. The chocolate cake underneath the icing is soft & moist. The icing, because of the minty flavor, was as refreshing as lemonade on a hot day. I reveled at the ability of this mere cake (not ice cream) to be so refreshing. This would be perfect on a hot summer day in lieu of ice cream, frozen yogurt, or, dare I say it, lemonade.
Life is good & redemption is found in the unlikeliest of places. The stars are aligned. I hear the birds rejoicing spring, their voices crystal clear. The bright pink flowers smile at me from their well manicured lawns. The anticipation and savoring were all a part of the journey. I will be back to Essential Chocolate Desserts to renew my faith, frequently.
Essential Chocolate Desserts
10868 Washington Blvd.
Culver City,CA. 90232
I took a sushi workshop at Nobu in West Hollywood last Saturday afternoon from 1-4pm. A recent avid convert of sushi (it's an acquired taste), I eagerly anticipated that fated afternoon. I've been to both the Malibu & West Hollywood locations. Before I begin, however, I'd like to share something that is close to my heart. Given the recent natural disaster that the people of Japan have endured, those very people have reacted with such a grace & dignity that I would be so lucky to posess had I been in that situation.
I'm sure the Japanese people here have friends and/or relatives there right now that they're worried about. To top that, there has been a huge decrease in diners at many sushi restaurants. I went to my favorite sushi restaurant shortly after news of the tsunami. On many previous occasions, there was a half hour wait minimum. My most recent visit yielded no wait & 2 empty tables. That has never been the case before.
Evidently, there has been a stigma (mostly imagined) regarding seafood, particularly in Japanese restaurants. As a frequent consumer of seafood, especially seafood, I know that most of our seafood comes from Alaska & Canada. It always has. The two exceptions are the occasional octopus & yellowtail. Even then, yellowtail is also locally farmed in Australia. I realized just how pervasive the stigma was when I overheard a fellow "classmate" of the workshop ask one of the head chefs about the radiation found in the seafood used today.
The head chef, Alex, patiently explained the source of our seafood (which I already knew) and added that he had a radiation gauge/meter that he used. The classmate then asked to see it and try it over her plate of sushi. Meanwhile, our sushi instructor politely smiled as he walked by. I could tell that the woman did not mean to be malicious; she simply didn't know. But it is a touchy subject right now. And so, I feel the need to impart any information that I have, to avoid further confusion.
I put myself in the shoes of a Japanese person. Imagine I was worried about my people, family, & friends. Then imagine that my own business or even my family's, or friend's business (sushi restaurants) dramatically decreased because of some calamity I could not control. Then imagine if I had to hear questions as the one I just mentioned, and had to keep a brave facade each & every time? I mean, really, what else do they have to worry about? And no, I'm not Japanese. I'm Taiwanese but my grandparents & parents speak Japanese, the school systems in Taiwan were implemented by the Japanese, and there are many cultural similarities between the two.
For starters,the geography is eerily similar. Japan & Taiwan are both islands that are no strangers to typhoons & tsunamis. Indeed, the cheapest land in Taiwan is near the coast/beaches & only fishermen live there out of necessity. There are nuclear plants in Taiwan also which means there would be similar explosions if a natural disaster were to occur. The governments & economic models are similar. The countries are both run by a democratic government on a capitalist economy. The cultures both love Western/European influences.
Now on to the sushi-making! The class was greeted upon entering,by the bartender (Markus), general manager, co-manager and host (Daniel). Markus asked each of us if we would like to start with a drink. Most of us had water, including me. I wanted to be lucid enough to properly learn to make sushi!
We noshed on edamame with sea salt & grilled shishito peppers as they introduced themselves & explained Nobu's legacy as a restaurateur. We were then led to a prepped table where the head chef, Koji, (who learned from Nobu) stood beaming at us. He effortlessly demonstrated what we were to be making a few times & then encouraged us to try.
Daniel jovially doled out wooden square sake cups to each of us & encouraged us to try their reserve sake (of the Nobu brand, made especially for the restaurants, similar to Fig & Olive's philosophy on their olive oil & balsamic vinegar). He told us the sake would take the edge of the stress of sushi making. I didn't need to be told twice! Not normally a fan of sake, I found this sake smooth & subtle. Any more subtlety & it could be mistaken for water if not for the ensuing buzz!
We made 2 handrolls (with tuna, avocado, sprouts), California rolls (with real crab), Shrimp nigri, and Salmon nigri. We had containers (similar to the squirtable ketchup bottles) of mayonnaise and spicy mayonnaise to be used at our discretion.
Koji was patient & funny. He lightened the mood when he saw some of our frustrated faces whilst we attempted to make sushi. Some of us were hindered by the rice sticking to our hands! Luckily, there were metal buckets full of cool water for the purpose of freeing the sticky rice from our hands. It really is harder than it looks. While the salmon & tuna were pre-cut & waiting for us on plates at each station, I knew that cutting the slices of fish was half the battle.
A sushi workshop taken years ago in Little Tokyo detailed the proper way to cut the fish to maximize the taste of fresh fish. I remember when I took this workshop in Little Tokyo, the instructor was strict & stern. When he saw our creations in the making, he emphasized that one creation had too much rice, another, too little. He then noted that one creation had the mound of rice packed too compactly, and another, too loose.
The instructor used the analogy of a perfectly manicured Japanese garden. I personally found it a little stressful but I came out of the experience with a lot of appreciation for sushi (as a consumer). Every step is done with precision & care. Koji exemplified this when he did his demonstrations with lightening quick speed. After all, he has been doing this for 30 years. Indeed, the sushi instructor (I've since forgotten his name) in Little Tokyo emphasized that he had to be an apprentice for 10 years (prepping, cleaning,etc with seafood) before he could be promoted to sushi chef.
Once we were done creating our sushi rolls, Koji came around & graciously cut the rolls for us using his high grade Japanese steel knife. I took a picture of my final product before we were encouraged to eat our creations in the dining room. Before we dug in,however, we were given a tour of the kitchen & sushi bar where we watched the cooks in action & a cook prepare sliced sashimi. That was enough to whet our appetites & we soon came back to the dining room.
While we ate, Koji walked around to answer any questions we had (and obliging our requests to take pictures with him). I don't like taking pictures of myself but wanted to remember this experience so I asked to just take a picture of him. He obliged. Koji made sure we each had a Nobu gift bag with the sushi mat that we used, some of their chopsticks, our sake cups, nametag, & chopstick holders. I left happily full & vowed to come back again for their amazing sushi & acclaimed fusion creations. First & foremost however, is to master the creations I learned!
903 N. La Cienega Blvd.
West Hollywood,CA. 90046
Tags: Alex, avocado, chopsticks, crab, cucumber, Daniel, handrolls, japanese steel knife, Koji, Markus, mayonnaise, Nobu, octopus, rice, sake, sake cups, salmon, sashimi, shrimp, spicy mayonnaise, sushi, sushi mat, tuna, West Hollywood, yellowtail