I lived in Squirrel Hill for years and never visited Chaya Japanese Cuisine. When I finally made my first visit last summer – to their new location in what used to be Sweet Basil – I felt a deep, deep remorse for all the times I could have eaten there and did not. Better, in the long run, for my wallet, certainly, but my appetite was left feeling like it had finally found the missing piece.
Chaya is that good. The food is fresh and delicious. The atmosphere is cozy and warm. Stepping into the doors on a freezing, wind-blasting evening was like taking shelter in the storm. There is even a curtain over the front entrance to protect inside of the restaurant from the furious vengeance of the outside winter.
Chaya’s interior is a softly glowing meditation on Japanese iconic images and decor. And despite how small the dining area is, the seating never seems packed. Diners are at a seemingly comfortable distance from one another, yet the restaurant manages to have enough seating to accommodate a large amount of visitors. This is artful, intelligent interior design and perhaps a little chance on my part, because I have never been to Chaya on a really, really busy night. But I have been there at six in the evening on Saturday, and around eight on a Wednesday, and neither hours seemed in want of customers or in want of seating.
We were immediately brought drinks, canned Oolong tea for me and my partner, a hot jasmine tea for Yigit, and lemonade for Kait. I’ve never had canned Oolong tea before, and I was a little worried that it would have a taste in line with other canned tea beverages, like Brisk Iced Tea, none of which I’ve cared for in the past. But this was just cold Oolong tea, neither sweetened or doctored in any way. I have to admire a restaurant that could just as easily pour the contents of the can into a glass and claim something was freshly brewed – unless you’re something of an iced tea connoisseur, there would be little way to distinguish between this stuff and freshly brewed Oolong iced tea – and I also figure that they might only use the canned stuff in the winter time, because so many more people would prefer hot tea. Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised.
Both Kait and Yigit ordered meals that came in several stages, starting with a salad for each of them. Unlike the salad at Silk Road, this was a full variety of spring greens, accompanied by a heavy ginger sesame dressing. The dressing was less sweet than its counterparts at other restaurants, and heavier, almost mustard-like (not mustard tasting, however) and tangy. The portion was ample but light, a fine way to warm up the appetite for the several courses to come.
I’m a miso soup junkie, so when it came to ordering an appetizer, I was all ready to order the miso and be done with it. But another appetizer option caught my eye, and having played it safe my last visits to Chaya, I thought it necessary to take a small step out of my comfort zone. So I ordered the Uzaku, an eel and cucumber salad. It came dressed in the thinnest of dressings, ginger, red wine vinegar, maybe garlic, but the emphasis was on the flavors of the cucumber and eel. Like the salads, the portion was a perfect warm up to a bigger meal. The flavors stuck with me throughout the rest of my meal, and I mean that in the best way. The cucumber was delicately sliced and crisp on the edges, well-suited as the second to the thin, lightly breaded, sesame-dotted eel slices. It was well worth the try.
The next step in the dinners for Yigit and Kait was a small portion of fried chicken. Oh, this fried chicken. If you dig tempura but really, really want to overload yourself on the option, this dish is the way to go. It’s guaranteed to be the best fried chicken strip you’ve ever had outside of a kitchen in the South. And the tempura breading has a flavor all its own, salty without being overpowering, and surprisingly crunchy. My only minor quibble would be that the breading nearly takes over the chicken here. For a small appetizer portion, this isn’t entirely unwelcome. But I could see it being a problem if you were to desire three or four of these pieces of fried chicken. At some point, I’ll have to try the fried chicken cutlet to find out.
Their pre-dinner menu finished on a dainty bowl of miso soup. Not much to say about this miso soup other than most Asian restaurants serve it, and few do it very well. Chaya is an exception. There’s not a lot of fuss to this soup. It’s not loaded with chunks of tofu or spinach or seaweed or anything else. Its one welcome addition is tiny circles of green onion. Miso soup is a basic cleanser of a dish that prepares the diner for their main course. And it’s warm, satisfying, and just what one could ask for on a February night like this one.
James and I both ordered sushi as our main, a fairly inexpensive option when you’re sticking to the vegetarian options. On the left is James’s choices, the avocado roll, vegetable roll, and the oshinko roll, or pickled radish. The right side is mine, with vegetable tempura roll and an avocado roll as well. Chaya’s sushi and sashimi are well-regarded and rightfully so. The ingredients are fresh and tasty, assembled in simple rolls in a clean, minimalist presentation. It ranks among the very best of sushi I’ve had in this city, so I don’t visit Chaya without getting at least one order. Of special note in our selections for the evening are the oshinko roll – because the pickled radish is so flavorful that it stands out even amid the wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce – and the tempura vegetable roll, which keeps things simple by including the tempura-fried vegetable in the roll, allowing the flavor and crispness of the breading to spread throughout each piece.
Yigit’s main course was a veritable cauldron of Udon soup, complete with sizable portions of green onions, spinach, mushrooms, tofu, and, of course, the thick udon noodle. If he was looking for the right dish to help him power through the rest of the cold evening, he picked the right choice. The bowl was huge, the amount and freshness of ingredients nearly overpowering, but it maintained a balance in a mild, slightly spicy soup broth. The sheer size of the entrée was a reminder that this place is perfect for a date night – Two people could fill easily on a single dinner, splitting the appetizers and main dish, maybe with a side of rolled sushi. As an affordable option for a two-person dinner, you can’t go wrong.
Kait’s entrée also proved formidable. And it held the answer to my question regarding a full portion of the fried chicken. Her cutlet looked incredible: Flakey, breaded just so, easily sliced with chopsticks and paired well with a light sauce over rice and veggies. Kait’s lead up appetizers hadn’t left much room for her entrée, so much of it got packed up for home. She looked like she wished she could eat more of it.
Chaya’s strongest feature is its ability to impeccably prepare a dish in a way that makes it seem effortlessly delicious. This is also incredibly frustrating as a reviewer, because there’s little to argue with, and even less to explain. But as a diner, it’s an enormous pleasure to look over a menu and be fairly sure that anything that sounds like it could be good will be good.
Just one more note on the restaurant environment: I’ve read a few reviews that had mildly negative things to say on the service, but I feel like this might be nitpicking. In the few times I’ve been there I’ve never had less than attentive, friendly service. Now this could be, like my experience with the amount of seating in the restaurant, simply my luck, but I have to say that for a waitress to seem as cool and collected while servicing several tables ordering multiple courses is downright impressive. Not only was she quick and responsive, she was attentive to things we hadn’t even considered, like asking me and James if we wanted another roll of sushi.
Don’t make the same mistake I made all those years ago: If you are in Squirrel Hill and want a good meal, go to Chaya. Take a date, take friends, take yourself. Try it once and you will be sure to go back a second time.