The dog days of summer are upon us, and we can't take the heat, so we've been getting out of our un-air-conditioned kitchen. But even outdoor grilling involves a sweltering flame, and there are only so many salads a couple can eat. And so our thoughts turn to sushi.
We've heard Chaya is where the Japanese go for a taste of home in Pittsburgh. A native clientele is always a good sign, but when it comes to Japanese, Angelique -- who used to live in the land of the rising sun -- has especially high standards. When we entered the unassuming little storefront on Murray Avenue, she was pleased to note the resemblance to the modest but pleasant neighborhood restaurants she used to frequent in Japan, down to the entire staff calling out "Welcome!" and "Thank you!" to arriving and departing guests. The scale is intimate, with fewer than 10 tables in close proximity, but separated by bamboo screens for privacy, and above the sound of water bubbling over a rock garden in one corner, we could hear that fellow diners were indeed speaking Japanese. An acoustic tile ceiling and a laboring air conditioner are also part of the ambience, but these too are authentic touches, Japan being not all picturesque temples and minimalist tatami rooms, after all.
The menu offered an exciting array of Japanese specialties, with plenty of items, like a fish called kanpachi, that don't even have translations. Angelique enthusiastically took the lead in ordering our cooked appetizers, starting with the essential bowl of miso soup. The cloudy, subtly salty broth and pliant kombu (seaweed) fronds got our meal off to a very promising start.
We took the opportunity to test the tempura with crab claws, an intriguing subject for frying in light panko batter, and were rewarded with a few crabs' worth of claws attractively arrayed on an origami crane. The meat was firm and succulent, though the batter was not as delicate as we would have hoped.
We also ventured beyond strip-mall Japanese with ohitashi (steamed spinach) and hamachi-kama (broiled yellowtail collar). The spinach was a tight little bale of emerald green leaves, stems still crunchy, reposing in a shallow pool of savory sauce and topped with bonito, or fish flakes. These resembled nothing if not wood shavings in appearance but lent a much-appreciated briny dimension to the spinach and sauce. The hamachi-kama consisted of a part of the fish that most Americans don't even know about, and after trying it, we can't imagine why not. The pork-chop sized "collar" was incredibly moist, with zones of flavor and texture: light and oily (in a good way) on top, meatier on the bottom where the fish had been closest to the broiler, and extra-crispy where the ratio of skin to fish was highest. Like most Japanese food, it was not highly seasoned, relying on the fish itself for flavor, enhanced only by grated daikon, which we found too fine to add quite enough tartness and crunch.
On to an a la carte assortment of sushi and sashimi (set dinners with accompaniments are also available). Quality is, of course, of the utmost importance in raw fish dishes, and we were impressed to learn of Chaya's commitment in this regard: Fish are flown in chilled from New York or Japan itself. Chaya avoids using frozen fish for sushi or sashimi whenever possible, a policy that places it a cut above many inland sushi bars.
Our selection of sashimi -- slices of raw fish served without rice -- included tuna, salmon, yellowtail, fluke, crabstick and octopus. This last was tough around the edges, and the salmon was served a bit too cold for us to fully appreciate its fatty flavor, but the tuna was exceptional: tender, dark and sweet.
Avoiding ingredients such as cream cheese that would never be found in Japan, we also tried two sushi rolls. The spicy tuna was less than exciting, with mayonnaise and hot pepper flakes but neither chili oil nor sesame seeds for depth. The Hobart Street roll, a house specialty, contained salmon, avocado, cucumber and roe in a delightful interplay of tastes and textures. In all our sushi, the vinegared rice was almost fluffy with a mild flavor that balanced confidently between sweet and sour.
An order of toro (fatty tuna) nigiri sushi was the culmination of our meal. Rich and buttery-soft, the fish was separated along the grain of the muscle and draped delicately over a loosely packed ball of rice. It was so decadently good that it stood in for dessert.
Our only real regret about our visit to Chaya was that we left so much of the menu unexplored. Oceans of sushi, not to mention noodles and rice, cooked seafood and meats, tofu and nabemono -- hot-pot dishes cooked at your table between October and March -- await us on future visits. Angelique looks forward to renewing her acquaintance with some favorite Japanese foods she's seldom found in restaurants here. Cream cheese aside, Chaya is the real deal: an authentic, affordable slice of everyday Japan in Pittsburgh.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars