Chef Joji Inoue Gives Chaya Downtown a Fresh Start

Straight-from-Japan seafood should appeal to fans of both the raw and the cooked

“My favorite is the spotted knifejaw because it eats uni,” new Chaya Downtown executive chef Joji Inoue says as he shows me his latest surprise box of seafood from Japan’s Kyushu region. The chef opens up the mouth of his formidable fave to reveal the scary-looking teeth that allow the spotted knifejaw to feast on umami-rich shellfish.

Inoue gets shipments from Japan twice a week, and the selections always change. A recent box included long, thin, almost serpent-like red cornetfish that, it turns out, makes for great sashimi.

Inoue, who started as a Chaya line cook in 2004 and just got tapped for Chaya Downtown’s top job, fell in love with all kinds of fish when he was a young chef working in Tokyo. He remembers waking up before dawn, heading to the famed Tsukiji fish market where he trained, and then returning home to clean himself up before going to his actual restaurant job. It was cooking in Tokyo, at a French restaurant, that made Inoue proficient in the European technique, sauces, and presentations that have served him so well at Chaya, which prides itself on its Japanese-French fusion.

So although he’s billed as a “seafood samurai” and there’s no doubt he’s proficient at cutting raw fish, Inoue wants to make something clear: “Sushi is very famous, but I’m not a sushi chef, and I want to show that,” he says. “I want to show a lot of different types of fish from Japan. That’s why I made a Kaisen Bar. I want to show my style and the whole-fish concept.”

The Kaisen Bar, which recently replaced the restaurant’s sushi bar, showcases seafood from Japan and beyond: oysters, uni, squid, Maine lobster, Alaskan King crab. “Seasonality is the most important,” Inoue says.

The daily whole-fish program features sashimi-grade options that customers can enjoy raw or cooked in a variety of ways: Italian acqua pazza-style, grilled, baked with sea salt, or deep-fried. On any given day, the menu could include line-caught fish from Kyushu like threeline grunt, grouper, flathead, or jack mackerel. There might also be branzino to represent the Mediterreanean.

Beyond the Kaisen Bar and whole fish, Inoue’s menu additions include Osaka-style pressed sushi (battera) and his original creations like an umami bomb of an uni toast with wild mushrooms and hollandaise. And as a way of reminding everyone that Chaya is more than a seafood restaurant, he’s also introduced a foie gras steamed bun with eel, mango chutney, and port wine jus. For the restaurant’s summer-only beer-garden menu in the bar and patio area, there are grilled kushiyaki skewers, like lamb tsukune and bacon-wrapped dates, all enhanced by Inoue’s sauces.

“I’m always using French technique and Asian flavors, soy, miso, yuzu, wasabi,” Inoue says. “I’m always thinking of balance.”

redarrow Chaya Downtown, 525 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, 213-236-9577