By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
The décor at Chaya in Venice is whimsical, with sculptured paper sea creatures hanging over the bar area, but there is a purpose to the garland of garlic bulbs and dried chili peppers that decorate the windows toward Main Street. A banner visible from that thoroughfare proclaims the reason for the garland – Chaya is celebrating its 18th annual Spicy Garlic Fair.
My own celebration of spicy garlic started the first time I tasted Szechuan cuisine, and it shows no sign of stopping. As soon as I heard that Chaya had instituted this celebration I was resolved to go, and I dragooned a friend to join me for the occasion. Only when we actually were seated for dinner did he mention that he found fresh garlic delightful, but didn’t much like roasted or cooked garlic. In deference to his sensibilities we started with Peruvian-style salmon sashimi with chopped raw garlic, yellow pepper ponzu sauce, red onion and white corn.
Peru has a food culture in which Japanese and Chinese ideas are blended with indigenous ingredients and the techniques of the conquistadores, Italians and other immigrants, and as a result Peruvian sushi is more robustly flavored than any other raw fish dish on the planet. In this case it worked splendidly, the full-flavored and slightly oily salmon was an equal partner with the full flavors of garlic, onion and other seasonings.
My friend was apprehensive about the next dish I had ordered, a “bagna cauda” – Italian for “hot bath,” a rustic dish of roasted garlic and herbs in oil that is used as a dip for toasted bread. I was therefore surprised when he devoured most of it and immediately wanted to order another one. The sweet roasted garlic had a warm, intense flavor, and when spooned over the toasted bread it was delightful. I convinced him to wait until we saw how large the portions were, because I didn’t want to over-order.
We also shared a bowl of what was described as a spicy Brazilian coconut shrimp soup, which reminded me of a mild gumbo with the addition of coconut milk. It wasn’t particularly hot-spicy, though roasted red pepper and paprika gave it a mild kick; I would have preferred the red pepper to be a bit bolder.
After considering the idea of pairing our meals with Prosecco or a semi-sweet white, my usual preference with spicy food, we decided to try the house cocktails. The Chaya gimlet made with vodka, lime juice, agave and basil, had the coolness and citrus to quench fiery food, while a house special called “Kick in the Grass” had well-calibrated jalapeno, basil, cucumber and citrus to match the cuisine.
For main courses we decided on tandoori-style striped bass with green garlic crab risotto and a dish of lamb chops marinated with harissa alongside pea sprouts and garlic rice pilaf. The fish had the boldest use of red pepper of the meal, but was still in balance, and the bed of whole-grain mustard it was served on added a different spicy kick. I’d nominate this dish for their regular menu, as it was superb – the green garlic risotto had a mild crab flavor and was delicious.
The lamb chops were a hit too, with the garlic and pepper flavor of the Moroccan harissa sauce glaze an elegant companion to the meat. There were crisp cloves of roasted garlic alongside the pea tendrils that made for contrasts of flavor and texture, and it was a splendid meal.
We were curious about how Chaya might work the spicy garlic motif into the dessert menu, but were somewhat relieved to find that they hadn’t tried to do so. I’ve had dark chocolate and chili concoctions that worked well, but was more than a bit skeptical about how garlic would fit in. My companion had no such reservations – he ordered another bagna cauda and happily munched his way through more bread with roasted garlic for dessert.
Chaya is a fine restaurant at any time, but from now until May 5, those who appreciate the flavors of garlic and spice have a special reason to stop in. This is the 18th annual celebration, and my only excuse for not attending before is that I didn’t know about it. I won’t be missing it again. I’d like to see a national spicy garlic festival, perhaps even a worldwide event to celebrate the flavors that contribute so much to our enjoyment of good food, but until that happens we’ll all have to make Chaya a destination.
Chaya is at 110 Navy St., corner of Main Stree, in Venice. Valet parking entrance on Navy. Open midweek for lunch, daily for dinner beginning at 6 p.m. Corkage $20, wheelchair access good. Menus at thechaya.com/Venice. 310-396-1179.