Ten years ago, when Kaya first opened with a dining experience that felt like an hour-long resort vacation, its arrival seemed to signal that the Big Burrito folks had larger ambitions than running hip bars for the college crowd. And when it revamped its menu a couple years back, it hinted at the coming fine dining of Eleven. The basic Kaya concept remains the same -- contemporary cuisine inspired by the spices and preparations of the Caribbean -- but the emphasis and ingredients have moved subtly upscale, featuring "local greens" and meats with provenance.
The space has been selectively remodeled as well, most noticeably the bathrooms, which are now nice enough for corporate board meetings. Warm colors still wash the walls, island artwork dots the industrial space, and filtered daylight conspires with candlelight to create an atmosphere of exotic intimacy.
The menu changes daily, though its basic division into tropas -- tropical tapas -- and entradas -- Burritospeak for entrees -- remains. Much of the menu is vegetarian, and there's a monthly prix fixe vegetarian dinner. The list of 20 tropas is as tantalizing as it is varied, so that it is easy to make a meal of these small plates, and even to go a little bit overboard. Can't decide? Why not try just one more?
We were very pleased with the spicy lentil-corn beignets -- or fritters, as we might call them if we weren't being all Frenchy and gourmet. They were big, crunchy on the outside, and wonderfully chewy, not gummy, on the inside. The accompanying green curry dipping sauce was well matched to the fritters' own hearty, slightly spicy flavor, paradoxically seeming to add both heat and creamy coolness to each bite.
Griddled Halloumi cheese with peppadew peppers was less successful. Though the postage-stamp-sized slices of cheese were beautifully browned and freckled with ground black pepper and the peppadews were red and delicious, the dish was entirely too salty for us to enjoy.
However, we exchanged looks of gastronomical gratification over the Tazmanian salmon ceviche, a refreshing cocktail of citrus-cured fish, jalapeno and cilantro served with crisp, seeded lavash crackers. Little morsels of salmon had the texture of ripe summer peaches and a lively sweet-spicy-citrusy flavor. Uncooked food cannot hide any flaws in the freshness department, and there were none here. This dish truly transported our taste buds to the tropics.
Angelique took a double dose of salmon, ordering it again for her entrée. This time it was a grilled filet served in a light peanut broth over tender leaves of baby bok choy and fingerling potatoes. The salmon fell into firm flakes under her fork, and the sauce was flavorful without being so aggressive as to drown the richness of the fish. Though more Asian than Caribbean, the dish was a signature Kaya creation, an updated riff on the traditional grilled salmon dinner.
Offered as an entrée but ordered by us as an appetizer, Kaya's Cuban sandwich is the authentic mix of ham, pork and Swiss on a pressed baguette, with the lone, welcome gourmet touch being whole grain mustard. This is an excellent preparation. Moreover, the shoestring-style sweet-potato fries with spicy ailoli are the best we've had, in town or elsewhere.
Jason's jerked chicken breast with creamy hominy and chopped Swiss chard was a bit unevenly grilled -- some edges were tough -- but held together as an amalgam of spiced juicy meat, mellow, almost earthy hominy and light, garlicky greens. More Southern than Creole, this dish is a good illustration of Kaya's way with ingredients both modest and trendy, with the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.
Kaya is one of Pittsburgh's culinary mainstays, offering inventive but rarely off-putting dishes that evoke numerous cuisines while establishing a singular creative identity. That identity might have moved a bit upmarket of late, but we're confident that Kaya's next decade will be just as appealing as its first.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars