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The only thing understated about the latest addition to the Steuart Street restaurant corridor is its name. "Chaya" in Japanese refers to a casual tea house. Chaya Brasserie, on the other hand, is a majestic, highly polished pleasure dome, with brightly colored exposed girders, huge, exotic, photographic blowups, crystal light fixtures, and stunning views of the Bay Bridge. The larger of Chaya's two dining rooms contains a zinc bar where business types huddle; the other, more intimate, is anchored by the handsome sushi bar.
This is the latest in a string of Chayas owned by Yuji Tsunoda, of which West Hollywood's Chaya Brasserie is the best known. The new branch is perfectly poised to catch the top end of the ballpark crowd -- and, with the restaurant's $27 entrees and $200 bottles of wine, Tsunoda intends to make them pay. The menu includes both traditional sushi and inventive Western dishes: The food is well-crafted, interesting, and very good indeed. The staff is smooth and professional, in the young- and-flirty way rather than the old-career-waiter way, and the space is comfortable and well-designed. The wine list comprises 100 or so bottles from here and abroad, with an emphasis on boutique wineries, and offers a good mix of bottles you know and bottles you don't.
Yoji Iida's sushi creations are exquisite, and indeed the ambience is quite well-suited to sushi, particularly at uncrowded times. The range of choices is small -- just a few nigiri options and a few rolls -- typically a sign that a restaurant is using only what's freshest. The toro nigiri ($10) is magnificently fresh, glowing with flavor. One of the more creative maki, the San Francisco Roll ($7) is wrapped in stretchy white tofu skin rather than nori, and filled with the fruit of the land: crab, shrimp, avocado, asparagus, and bell peppers for crunch. Needless to say, the rice is flawless. One note: The sushi bar and the kitchen operate asynchronously, so if you order sushi and a three-course hot meal at the same time, there's no predicting when the sushi will arrive relative to everything else. You just have to hope the sushi bar isn't too slammed, and that it will be able to get your order out before dessert.
San Francisco, CA 94105
If you choose to go the non-sushi route, the choices broaden. The menu is a treasure trove of familiar Cal-French luxury dishes: foie gras, duck confit, tuna carpaccio, scallops wrapped in steak -- and those are just the starters. A salad of porcini, asparagus, artichoke, and cherry tomatoes ($14.50) is dressed with a truffle vinaigrette whose intensity stands up to the strong produce admirably. The asparagus consists of firm rounds of crunchy stalk, the porcini are large and resilient, and the tomatoes are fresh and tart. Despite its decadence, the salad manages to remain light and refreshing. Not so, however, a starter of pan-fried Hama Hama oysters with caviar ($13) -- their flavor is lost in that of the delicious crisp potato galette on which they rest. Fresh sea scallops ($13.50) are wrapped in thin strips of New York steak, and dressed with -- deep breath -- a tomato mustard caper yuzu vinaigrette. The scallops are served rare, while the steak is likewise tender, and so firmly fastened around the bivalves that if you close your eyes it's hard to tell you're eating two very different beasts.
Every last one of the entrees is an intensely flavored grilled or roasted piece of meat or fish: Diners in the mood for something lighter may well wish to substitute a flight of sushi at this point. Grilled choices include rib eye steak, lamb chops, chicken, venison, bacon-wrapped salmon, and halibut. Oh, and there's a sautéed fish too: bluenose sea bass, stuffed with langoustine, spinach, and sea urchin ($25).
The Sonoma lamb chops ($26.50) are so succulent, meaty, and smoky, you'd swear they had been wrapped in bacon. They are dressed in a thin, garlicky rosemary pesto jus, which brings out the flavor of the meat without leaving anything to chance; if some lamb were insufficiently savory, you wouldn't know it after this sauce takes charge. The pan-roasted Alaskan halibut ($24.50) is a very handsome piece of fish, with a healthy crust and blindingly white flesh. Accompanying it are nice fresh soy beans and artichoke pieces. Unnervingly, the whole is served on a bed of fishy white brandade, so after you get to the bottom of your halibut it's as though it has released some mysterious silt beneath itself, with much the same flavor as the fish but a pasty, grainy texture.
Dessert at Chaya is as luxurious as everything else. Particularly good is the crème brûlée trio ($8) -- three little cups containing tantalizingly small samples of smooth puddings in banana, espresso, and pistachio flavors. These are served with unexciting fruit satay and very exciting fruit sushi, consisting of tiny pieces of strawberry and kiwi wrapped in coconut "rice" and enrobed with rich chocolate. A firm, uneggy flan ($8) is also good. It is dressed for excess with quenelles of mild chocolate ganache and preserved kumquats.
Chaya is ideal if you're looking to spend a bunch of that technology-boom cash in one place. In return you get a guaranteed solid experience, including delicious food and drink, smooth service, lovely neo-industrial surroundings, and a charismatic clientele. Still, visit after visit, one may find something cold and uninviting about the place -- a feeling of too much professionalism and too little heart, perhaps, as though all the glossy food and décor is a beautiful veneer laid over nothing much.