If a good trend emerges from the current economic squeeze on the dining industry, maybe it will be a shift in the equation of food quantity and quality in restaurants. In an effort to reduce food costs and offer a more affordable dining experience, nimble restaurateurs are tinkering with their menus to offer smaller plates at lower prices. At its best, the result is cuisine that showcases craft over bulk while scaling back the portions to something more in keeping with the recommended daily allowance.
Meanwhile, on a note that would seem to be unrelated, Spain and all things Spanish are hot. Everyone from Tony Bourdain to Mario Batali and his intensely irritating entourage is scouring the land of Dali for gambas, tapas and jamon Iberico. Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona recently launched Penelope Cruz, no slouch herself as a hot Spanish export, to breathless Oscar glory.
As if he predicted this convergence of recession cuisine and Spanish cultural conquest, chef-owner Arnold Myint flung open the doors to ChaChah in January, Its hook is a Spanish-inspired menu of tapas and small plates, with nothing over $18.
Originally intended as a teahouse purveying Myint's line of private-label teas, the ChaChah project mushroomed over the last year, as architectural renovations exceeded projections—and the $1 million mark—and the menu ballooned from nibbles to nearly full-fledged meals.
Shoehorned into the pedestrian-friendly row of open-air restaurants on Belmont, ChaChah reflects the neighborhood's eclectic and casual frenzy. While the kitchen, led by chef de cuisine Sebastian Silbereis, delivers some serious fare—think sumac-roasted quail and bison marrow with cardamom-braised shank—ChaChah is far from a hushed temple of gastronomy. With dips ringing in at $12 for a trio and raciones hovering below $20, ChaChah is accessible for a broad range of budgets, including cocktailers who want to dabble with intriguing noshes and diners who expect a longer and pricier evening meal.
Myint may have surprised the Belmont neighborhood two years ago when he reinvented PM, the casual Asian eatery opened by his mom Patti, who founded International Market across the street. But with ChaChah's bold menu and arresting architecture, the young restaurateur has become the talk of broader dining circles. Enthusiastic fans wax poetic about the bungalow swathed in subtle shades of white, cream and beige and accented with vibrant abstract canvases and dramatic glowing chandeliers. They lapse into reveries about the molten chocolate service for two and the martini of cider-tinged vodka with a paper-thin crystallized Asian pear floating on the surface.
On the other hand, ChaChah's menu of small plates has been derided with criticisms like this one, from a recent conversation on the Scene's food blog, Bites: "I don't want to spend $30 on dinner and still be hungry when I leave." (Of course, that commenter hadn't actually been to ChaChah yet.)
ChaChah's twee tripartite menu unfolds to reveal a repertoire of dips, tapas and raciones. Our server described the categories like this: If you were at a cocktail party, the tapas would be passed as appetizers, and the raciones would be served at the table—an apt description, minus the caveat that the raciones ($13-$18) are smaller than most standard restaurant entrées.
In a greedy rush to taste as many of the unexpected concoctions as possible, we traversed the tapas menu, filling our table with small plates for sharing. Truffled mushroom toast layered duxelles of buttons and larger slivers of oysters over two lightly grilled fingers of bread that absorbed the earthy, sherry-tinged liquor and pungent truffle oil.
Spicy gambas a la plancha arrived with five tender shrimp—and their heads—in a spicy tomato-based broth with a grilled lemon. Sliced up the center before grilling, the sweet shellfish curled up in playful corkscrews that tangled around the tongue and almost resembled calamari tendrils.
Chicken samosas were familiar triangles of deep-fried pastry filled with tender minced chicken and served with sweet mandarin glaze. While a generous serving for sharing, it was not one of the more intriguing plates. Presented beautifully on a segment of banana leaf, the duck-and-chorizo tamales suffocated the scant meats in a light pillow of breads, resembling tiny Twinkies made from coarse meal.
While there was not a loser in the lot of tapas—from garlicky baby octopus to the playfully named ChaCharonnes, a play on the traditional fried pork rinds known as chicharrónes—it was the raciones that drew oohs and ahs from our table, as well as gratitude for a novel dining experience.
The most stunning was the triptych of bison marrow and cardamom-braised shank. At one end of a long plate, two short fingers of tempura-fried marrow from Kentucky bison balanced on a pile of yuca tostones. Marinated in vinegar prior to being cooked, mashed and fried into silver-dollar-sized latkes, the starchy cassava root cakes were an unexpectedly bright complement to the rich, fatty marrow. At the other end of the plate, two chestnut-size cippolini onions caramelized with balsamic vinegar and butter bobbled on a pair of toast points. The crisp lengths of bread were held in place by a schmear of finely minced and vinegar-steeped caramelized onions (also available as a dip), which played bitter counterpoint to the glassy molten bulbs.
The centerpiece of the canvas was a hollow column of bone, stuffed with tender shreds of braised bison meat, redolent of cardamom, fennel and Grand Marnier. The plate was adorned with a thick drizzle of balsamic and reduced braising liquid. Had the marrow composition been the only plate on the table, we might have wished for a dash of color in such a monochromatic study in brown. But with so many small plates circulating, there was color and variety aplenty—from the verdant chimichurri on the pinkish-purple duck breast to the bed of purple risotto cradling the clams, shrimp, scallops and tender calamari.
At the dark-and-savory end of the spectrum, we enjoyed the sumac-roasted quail, like a miniature Thanksgiving turkey on a bed of jasmine rice studded with meaty hunks of chestnut and apricot. A grilled lemon on the side added brightness to both the composition and the earthy spice of the plump, bronzed bird.
On an uncharacteristically balmy winter night, tahini-lime salmon stood out like a colorful harbinger of spring. In a white bowl, an orange strip of salmon sat enthroned on a tangle of thinly shaved fennel, jicama and red onions. Topped with clementine sections, capers and green flecks of fennel frond, the rare fish was encrusted in a broiled layer of sesame paste with a hint of citrus. A forkful of crispy salmon skin, plump orange sections and tangy capers combined into a medley of salty and sweet, rough and buttery, cool and warm, so full of contrast that the outstanding racione—devoid of pasta, rice or bread—was far more fulfilling than we would have expected for a dish of its modest size.
Despite many recommendations in favor of the chorizo and clams in saffron broth, we opted instead for the seafood risotto and were well rewarded with buttery scallops and cheese-textured calamari, tender clams and spiraled shrimp over a creamy bed of inky rice and garnished with tangy threads of orange zest.
Across the compact menu, details such as frizzled leeks, Asian pear, Benton's prosciutto, Israeli couscous and kumquat-raisin relish pop off the pages to the extent that a diner could make a selection based solely on the intriguing garnishes and accessories. That could be a problem if the proteins were cooked less skillfully and needed more than a dollop of cilantro cream and curry oil to add moisture or flavor. But in our experiences, lamb, duck, quail and other meats were so deftly prepared, so succulent, fork-tender and flavorful, that the accessories served only to accentuate and complement the flavors and textures of the meats, creating a larger overall impression.
Therein lies the success of Myint's formula: The flavorful whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
So while ChaChah's plates may be smaller than many restaurant offerings, they make a bigger impression—which, in the end, could make a difference in what we're hungry for in the first place.
ChaChah serves dinner only and is closed on Tuesday. Brunch is available 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Email email@example.com, or call 615-844-9408.
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