Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Where to Eat: The 4th Annual Summer Beer Garden @ CHAYA Downtown

The Eats + Drinks: A special menu for the patio, lounge and bar areas featuring Japanese-style BBQ small plates, beers and cocktails

The Location: Downtown

The Vibes: Outdoors, cultural, festive, colorful, bustling

When-To-Go: Now until Friday, August 29, 2014, Monday – Friday, 4 p.m. – close

The $ Factor: Drinks $4-$18; Food $1-$14

The Names Behind the Scene: Executive Chef Kenjo Atsushi

The 4-1-1: CHAYA Downtown is part of a larger restaurant group consisting of locations throughout California and Japan. The group is operated by the Tsunoda family, who’s been in the restaurant business for more than 400 years.

Parking: Four hours free parking in an underground structure; $7 afterwards. Entrance off Flower St.

I’ll Be Back…: For the Tokyo Mule and the Grilled Sweet Corn!

Every summer for the past several years, CHAYA Downtown has converted its outdoor patio into a Summer Beer Garden, with bright, colorful lanterns and strings of glittering lights hanging high in the trees above, a traditional Yakitori grill festively placed in a corner (pictured below) and Japanese-inspired small plates, cocktails and beers available to enjoy.

As I had tremendously enjoyed the 2nd Annual Summer Beer Garden, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to return this year.

Arriving on CHAYA’s “Beer Garden” patio, I immediately noticed some elements have remained the same: the large pitcher of sangria welcomingly perched on the outdoor bar, two of my favorite items on the menu (more on that later)…yet there were definitely some new aspects to appreciate as well.

Take for instance, the Boozy Sno Cones. They're basically a grown-up version of a childhood favorite for many—the snow cone: ice compactly packed into a cone-shaped paper cup with flavored syrup drizzled over on top and soaked into the ice. New for this season of the Beer Garden, these Sno Cones conveniently come in an orange holder (so that you don’t have to hold it all night and your hands won’t get sticky) and a small wooden spoon (so you don’t have to lick the ice like you’re a 10-year-old kid either, unless, of course, you want to). Choose mango, sweet ginger, cherry or calpico yogurt as flavors.

Also, there are now five special cocktails created in honor of five countries (the U.S., Mexico, Spain, Brazil and Argentina) playing in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Made exclusively with the Brazilian açaí liqueur VeeV, they will be available until the series ends, on Sunday, July 13.

More new cocktails include: the Two Tone Melon “Nama,” made with Kirin beer and melon liqueur featuring two layers of different colors for an aesthetically pleasing beverage; the Bloody Maru, with bloody mary mix and soju; the Perfect Hibiki Manhattan, made with a special 12-year-old whisky and bourbon-rhubarb bitters; and my new favorite, the Tokyo Mule, a creative twist on the traditional Moscow Mule, made with two different sakes, fresh blackberries and a housemade sweet ‘n’ sour (pictured below). While bursting with rich, fruity flavors, it's still very light and refreshing, making it a fantastic seasonal beverage. 

As for food, CHAYA has added quite a few new, inventive dishes as well, with a strong emphasis on seafood. The restaurant recently introduced its Kaisen menu, consisting of seafood from local areas and also flown in from Japan. Although the Kaisen menu is technically only part of CHAYA’s dinner menu, its Oysters hailing from Baja California are available on the Summer Beer Garden menu. Served chilled, they are large and crisp, with faint hints of saltwater and a lingering sweetness. For $1 each, they're a great steal. Additional seafood dishes on the Summer Beer Garden menu are the Fish Tacos, topped with creamy guacamole, crunchy lettuce and served with a flavorful salsa, and the Baked Oyster “Sriracha Dote-yaki,” with warm oysters and scallops covered in a tangy, brown sauce, pictured below.

Another new, intriguing item that caught my attention is the Soy Glazed Chicken Tsukune. A neatly contained poached egg sits on top a round mound of chicken (similar to a chicken patty, but 1,000 times better!). 

Yet even with all of the new additions to the menu, fortunately, several staples have returned. This includes the main feature on the menu, the Kushiyaki: skewered or grilled food items that come directly from the Yakitori grill. There are five skewers to choose from and you can pick one, mix and match a few, or select all (which I recommend). They include my favorite—sweetly delicious bacon-wrapped dates—and also chicken covered in a creamy orange sauce, beef tongue, beef and glazed mushrooms.

Another one of my absolute favorites, the Grilled Sweet Corn, has also returned! It’s CHAYA’s version of the popular Mexican Elote dish, with feta cheese, a creamy jalapeno aioli and intense spices served on top of crunchy, sweet corn that’s still attached to its husk.

It’s great to see the Summer Beer Garden going strong in its fourth year, and it’s most certainly a pleasure to see how many new and returning items there are to choose from. So the next time you’re in the mood to leisurely dine on a shaded patio, with a great selection of Japanese-inspired cocktails and small plates, I recommend heading over to the Summer Beer Garden. But don’t wait too long; it’s only here for a few more months.

See you there soon!

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