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CHAYA Downtown: Fusion at Its Finest

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Centuries ago in Hayama, Japan, under the shade of a tree, CHAYA began offering tea and refreshments to weary travelers on horseback. It has been operated by the Tsunoda family ever since. Today, there are a pair of locations in Japan (Hikage Chaya and La Maree de Chaya) and four locations in California (Beverly Hills, Venice, downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco).

A shuttle runs from the Music Center to Staples Center and drops hungry theatre-/symphony-/
opera-goers (theatre ticketholders receive a 15 percent dinner discount through April 22) and sports fans at CHAYA Downtown, the group's newest location, which has been catering to locals and professionals for nearly three years. To celebrate their upcoming anniversary, the Euro-Asian fusion restaurant is offering a three-course dinner menu for $33, and small bites and drinks in the bar, lounge and patio for $3 through the end of the month. And as if that weren't enough, Happy Hour -- one of the best downtown -- is all night, every night.

Another distinctive feature of the restaurant is Wine & Dine Sundays, in which bottled wine is half-off and a three-course chef's menu is offered for $25. And that wine list is impressive. In addition to an extensive array of local and international wines, there is a cellared collection that includes Grand Crus Bordeaux and Burgundies. Imagine saving more than $500 on a vintage bottle of Chateau Margaux or Romanee-Conti. This is simply one of the best deals I've come across in a long time.

A complaint I've heard about the restaurant is that it's "soulless." And frankly, I find that charge about as unfair as complaining about the ambience at a dive bar. Fusion cuisine by its very nature is an artificial construct, but that does not in any way diminish its value to the culinary world, which is itself dynamic, fluid and constantly evolving. The same accusation of soulless-ness is often made about this city -- Los Angeles. L.A. is a fusion of people and cultures. Its soul is a collective one, merging myriad values, ideas and lifestyles into the modern metropolis.

The tuna tartare is perhaps the restaurant's signature dish, and with good reason: it was invented here. A permanent exhibit entitled "America on the Move" at the National Museum of American History features the very knife that provided health-conscious diners in the mid-1980s an alternative to steak tartare. By now, the dish has become so ubiquitous as to be unsurprising, but that shouldn't discourage anyone from still enjoying what is for good reason such a popular item.

If you're in the mood for something a little more novel, try the grilled octopus. The tender meat is served with Japanese plum pesto and watermelon radish. Another discovery to be had on the menu is the Kobe beef sushi roll, a creation of Executive Chef Atsushi Kenjo, which features a thin slice of beef atop asparagus, cucumber and spicy shrimp, with a zesty eel sauce, as though cattle was initially domesticated for such purpose.

New to Kenjo's menu is the pinot noir-braised short rib & Wagyu beef aburi duo. The braised short rib, a very popular dish on a lot of menus right now, would be damn fine on its own. But add the Wagyu beef aburi -- thin-shaved slices -- and your inner carnivore is going to be satiated. Wagyu cattle produce a very marbled and fatty meat that bursts with more flavor than other breeds.

Another must-have is the miso-marinated white sea bass. It tastes just like angel flesh (think Cherubims in a Raphael). It's served in a wasabi soy broth, which coats and soaks into the tender white meat, creating a complex complement of flavors.

But no discussion of CHAYA would be complete without mentioning dessert. And the most impressive item on this menu is the warm milk chocolate croissant bread pudding. I was never much of a fan of bread pudding until I sank my teeth into this. The French apple tart is another dish that I can recommend. It's served with a dollop of dulce de leche ice cream. My only complaint is that the ice cream serving is less than proportional to the fruit. The after-dinner beverage selection is nearly as impressive as the wine list. There are a variety of Scotches and Cognacs that, trust me, will pair nicely with both the bread pudding and the apple tart.

One thing that everyone will agree on is the ambience. I commend General Manager Zovig Sarkissian on the superb lighting (the chandelier is a conversation item) and the tasteful décor. And the music -- the Sunday night music, especially -- is as sexy as you could want in a setting that despite its intimacy is still, after all, public. Kudos to restaurant manager Maya Diamond on Sunday's smooth jazz playlist.

CHAYA Downtown is a prime example of what fusion cuisine is all about. It's a great place for a date or a small gathering (there is a private room for events). And the Happy Hour and Sunday specials are a perfect way to enjoy this upscale dining experience on a meager budget. If you've only been to the Venice or Beverly Hills locations, then you've only discovered a facet or two of the CHAYA experience. The locations have differences, just as those parts of town do, particularly in spring: The centennial anniversary of the Cherry Blossom festival begins April 16 and runs until April 27. CHAYA Downtown will celebrate "Kaika" -- the opening of the first cherry blossom -- with an assortment of dumplings, sushi rolls, picnic fare and drink specials under its own cherry blossoms.