Saturday, September 01, 2012

Chicken Salad at Chaya - Costa Mesa

The last time a salad surprised me it was at Pizzeria Mozza. How can a salad surprise someone? Well, by being better than the usual. If I may indulge you in an analogy: Salads are like Adam Sandler movies. You expect them to be mediocre, even disappointing. Most of the time, you'd do better avoiding them altogether. I knew better than to order the House Salad at a steakhouse I went to recently for the same reason I wouldn't commit a minute or a cent to Jack and Jill: Because I already made the mistake with Little Nicky and so many others.

But occasionally, there's a Punch Drunk Love, which bucks the genre. Much like that movie, Pizzeria Mozza's tricolore salad looked at first to be like the rest; but then BAM!, your expectations are upended by the depth and the thought that went into it. In that movie, Sandler's usual, simmering under-the-surface rage was finally capitalized for a major plot point. In the same way, Mozza's salad had greens that weren't just there for roughage. You actually cherished every single, wonderfully-dressed frilly leaf. The whole thing stood on its own without any crouton distractions, which in a Sandler movie equates to the obligatory Rob Schneider running gag where he says "youcundoooeeet!"

No salad since then has compared, but then I went to Chaya. I ordered the chicken salad not because I thought it was going to be good; I ordered it because I needed something to balance the fried gyoza and the fried tofu I intended to make as my meal.

The gyoza turned out to be a bust, literally. A few were already torn open, and the rest tasted as if it were just cooked from frozen, with the lacy browned crisped bottoms coming from added flour--an obvious shortcut. The agedashi tofu? Well, it was just as it was--good but not memorable.

But that salad. Everything about the components told my brain it was going to be a That's My Boy. There was iceberg, a few tomatoes, a few shreds of carrot and red cabbage. On top, crisp-edged morsels of just-griddled dark meat chicken was dumped and threatened to smoosh the thing flat.

Then came the dressing. This was a miso and sesame magic blend poured from a maple syrup pitcher that did the impossible: transforming what at first appeared to be as insipid as The Waterboy into something unexpectedly great, like 50 First Dates, where the ensemble cast was predictable, but the results were surprisingly charming. Like a good director, the dressing made every single ingredient be the best version of themselves. I wanted to lick that bowl clean the same way I wanted to buy the DVD for 50 First Dates after I saw it in the theater.

The question remains: does this review want to make you rent Punch Drunk Love and 50 First Dates or eat Mozza's tricolore and Chaya's chicken salad?

Chaya Japanese Grill
3030 Bristol St
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(714) 436-5798

Food Issue 2012 - OC's Best Noodles
Urban Kitchen - Foothill Ranch


At 9:33 AM, Blogger EatTravelEat said...

I just recently made a salad with a miso/sesame/ginger dressing. Your description makes me want to remake that salad again with some ingredient changes to match your description.

At 10:38 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

I actually craved this salad again I went back tonight and took better pictures to boot! Did I mention this salad is $5?!

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous JB said...

Punch Drunk Love was a great film!
3.5 stars out of 4...and I rarely go higher than 3 stars.

I watched it on a cloudy, bleak December day in 2002 at one of the lower-level screening rooms at The Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphia.

In my other life, I am a cinephile.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

That scene where he threatens Phillip Seymour Hoffman is cathartic!


Post a Comment

<< Home