Monday, July 23, 2012

Chaya Downtown: Summer Beer Garden

I've always been more of a cocktail girl, than a wine or beer girl.  The only notion I ever had of "beer gardens" were formed by experiences at street festivals - they meant a sort of holding pen where twenty-somethings essentially stood around getting sloshed and conversation revolved around the last time they were standing around getting sloshed.  I never associated beer gardens with any sort of good food or great ambience - i.e. they were not for me.

But then I was invited to Chaya Downtown to check out their Summer Beer Garden - running weeknights 4pm til close - and their version, pretty much because it involves delicious bites to go with alcohol, I liked.  That, and the charming setting - in a covered patio space, between skyrises, paper lanterns casting soft glows over wood-panelled booths and tables.  With a street-food-inspired yakitori/kushiyaki station in the corner, where the fragrant sizzle of grilled-to-order meat skewers drifted to every corner of the space.  That night there was also a drizzle of rain, which outside of that protective cover, added to the charm and movie-set-like atmosphere of the place.

The concept is sort of outdoor izakaya - small bites meant for people to fill up on, so that they can drink some more.  Which is fine with me because they actually put a lot of care and thought into the food - they're not just token sponges for alcohol.  My beverage of choice was a Ginger Joy cocktail with ginger vodka, muddled cucumber, lemon juice, simple syrup, fever tree ginger beer, cucumber and ginger ($12 on regular bar menu). 
Then the small plates started rolling through. Nothing goes better with alcohol than fried food - and Chaya served up a great gourmet fried dish in their Garlic Fried Soft Shell Shrimp, Chipotle Miso ($7) - from the Beer Garden menu: whole shrimp, heads, tails and all, were perfectly seasoned and fried to a deliciously fragrant crisp - it kind of reminded me of Chinese salt & pepper fried shrimp, but more garlicky.  And loved the creative fusion dipping sauce made with chipotle and miso.
One of my favorites though was Grilled Octopus ($8) baby potatoes, wasabi pickles - this was actually from the Happy Hour menu, which is available during Beer Garden hours as well. I loved how well the unusual combination of ingredients worked together: octopus with its crisper crunch balanced by the softer bites of baby potatoes, punctuated by the heat of wasabi mayo. Parsley added an herbaceous layer of flavor.

Then of course, we couldn't go without having the Yakitori & Kushiyaki that has been whipping up our appetites all night with the smokey char that had been wafting over to our table. We got a sampler plate with pretty much every kind of skewer on the menu: Bacon Wrapped Date Skewer ($2), Shrimp Skewer ($2), Shitake Mushroom Skewer ($2), Chicken Skewer ($2), Beef Tongue Skewer ($3), Beef Skewer ($3) - my favorites were the beef tongue (so thick, juicy and rich in flavor I thought it was the kobe beef skewer at first), kobe beef and shitake mushroom (super juicy and earthy/meaty tasting).  LOVE the super affordable prices on these!

 For some token veggies, we had the staple barbecue item served with a twist: Grilled White Corn, Feta Cheese ($5) - I loved the sweet, perfectly grilled corn, but the feta cheese was a bit too rich and had some kind of spice in it that was a little overpowering for me.  But those who like heat in their food may enjoy this.

Another great fried dish was the Soy Fried Chicken "Karaage" ($6) - which we could consider a Japanese happy hour classic?


Lastly, I never expect to love veggie dishes, but the Fried Brussel Sprouts ($8) with curried salt from the regular menu was instantly addictive, with an intoxicating smokey char and mouthwatering spicy flavors.

I could eat plates of these all night.
For the sweet finish, we got to taste something from the regular dessert menu: Warm Milk Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding ($10) dulce de leche ice cream - I LOVED this, possibly the best bread pudding I've ever had.  The croissant was beautifully buttery - I could smell it before I saw it come to the table - but also incredibly light, airy and flaky, served at just the right temperature, and well balanced with the rich melted belgian milk chocolate, and the not too sweet dulce de leche ice cream.  SO good.  This dessert is a staple at all Chaya locations, but beyond all the offerings at Chaya Downtown beer garden I would also go back just for this bread pudding, in that lovely garden setting.

I should also mention, that the night we were there, a Thursday night, there was also live music that was quirky and fun - going from a modernized rock rendition of the song from that classic SNL skit where Christopher Walken has "a fever" whose "only prescription is more cowbell", to "Ring of Fire", to "Pumped Up Kicks".   There isn't a set schedule for live music but it will be offered throughout the Summer Beer Garden run.

Oh yeah, and for those who are into beer, there is a selection on the beer garden menu from Kirin to Sapporo for $4-$5 a glass, $14 a pitcher. Sake cocktails are available for $7.  Premium Japanese whiskeys like Yamazaki are also on offer. You can also of course order from their regular and Happy Hour cocktail menus.

All in all, a fantastic time with great food at happy hour pricing, in a charming space.  Especially great for those who work downtown and just want a chill place to unwind with delicious bites to go with a few rounds of drinks. Or those who just want to grab tasty, affordable small plates in a great setting with friends or on a fun casual-ish date.

(And, one of the biggest deterrents to me trekking downtown usually, is taken care of at Chaya - you can park right beneath the building, and they valet for free for 3 hours with validation from the restaurant!)

Chaya's Beer Garden runs through August 31st, Mondays to Fridays 4pm to close, in the garden patio and bar/lounge.

*Disclosure: This meal was hosted.

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 5.5 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $ (1 bite mark)
Probability of return visit - 100% 

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Chaya Downtown  

525 S Flower St, Los Angeles, CA 90071
Ph: 213.236.9577

Parking: In underground structure in building - Valet parking free with validation for first 3 hours (flat fee of $7 thereafter)

Website: thechaya.com/downtownLosAngeles
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Chaya Downtown on Urbanspoon

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