Over the past few weeks, in desperate attempts to evade the all-powerful meal plan, I have sought refuge at all of the familiar spots: I assuaged my anxiety at Atticus, consumed enough sour bread at Adulis to soak up my stress, liberated myself from living hassles with lobster at Union League, and topped it all off with Tasti-D. But seeing as how I all but exhausted Elm City eateries in the first 20 days of school, I decided it was time to venture where (hardly) any undergrads go — to the corner of Whitney Ave. and Trumbull St. There, at Haya’s, against a background of typical New Haven sirens and screams, I found something I had been looking for all along: comfort food.
Haya’s, opened by sushi chef Hayasaka Tadahiro nine years ago, is not as innovative or elegant as Miso. It is not as convenient as Samurai, and not nearly as rowdy as Miya’s. But the brief walk is a small price to pay for a solid selection of fish, meat and vegetarian dishes, prepared in a comfortable, personal way that makes the diner feel more at home than most New Haven restaurants.
The first thing to strike me about the restaurant was the size and variety of the menu. While chef Haya included the standby Japanese appetizers and sushi rolls — seaweed salad ($4.50), siu mai ($5), standard rolls ($4.50-$13) and the like — his menu extends beyond run-of-the mill sushi. Entrees include a wide range of noodle dishes (including a cold soba noodle salad ($8-10) that I had to force myself not to order as a third course), hibachi ($9-13.50, although it is not prepared at the table), teriyaki dishes ($9-13) and bento boxes ($14-16.50). In addition to food, the menu boasts three different choices of plum wines ($5-8 per glass), nine sake choices ($3.50-5.50 per cup) and both imported and domestic beers ($4-6). The wine list is dominated by Italian vineyards and seemed adequate enough.
Our knowledgeable and eager waitress suggested we start with two of Haya’s specialties: the seafood salad ($9) and a sweet potato tempura roll ($4.50). The sweet potato tempura roll came to our outdoor table first. A sweet potato tempura roll is exactly what it sounds like — fried sweet potato wrapped in seaweed, which is in turn wrapped in rice. While the flavors were pleasing, there was a distinct lack of variation in texture — it was easy to mush the rice and the sweet potato together in my mouth without really differentiating between the two. Perhaps it was the lack of crunch in the tempura, or the length of time for which the potato was baked, rendering it a bit too soft.
But the seafood salad, as our waitress had promised, was flavorful and refreshing — much more so than the disappointing roll. Chef Haya marinated crab sticks, shrimp and octopus in a sharp ponzu sauce, and mixed it with avocado, salmon roe, tomatoes and lettuce. With a bit of bean sprout as a flourishing garnish on top and the fresh sesame seeds in the dressing, the dish had the appearance and taste of a mini seafood explosion, and was wonderfully satisfying for a warm New Haven evening.
My bento box came out soon after that (Haya’s service is quick and attentive — I can’t tell you how many times the waitress came around with the water pitcher). A bento box, in essence, is a compartmentalized dish that provides the indecisive eater with the ability to try it all. The bento boxes at Haya come with either meat, fish, or in vegetarian form. I ordered a beef teriyaki box, which came with white rice, vegetable tempura, seaweed salad and a sushi roll (I chose tuna, the waitress’s suggestion for the freshest fish that day).
One bite of the teriyaki told me that if I had a Japanese grandmother, this is what she would make for me after a rough day. The meat, with the layer of fat around the edges that is a specialty in Asian cooking, was just a pinch overcooked, giving the cooking a very home-style feel that didn’t wow me on the first bite but to which I quickly warmed up.
The tuna roll, an offering more frequently ordered a la carte in traditional sushi restaurants, was above par. The fish, as promised, was fresh and almost had that melt on your tongue quality. There was a tiny bit too much rice on the roll for my taste, which I wouldn’t have minded so much except that it lacked the vinegar flavor that sushi rice usually has. The ginger for the roll, however, was a more natural peach color than that horrible pink dye used at other restaurants, and had a robust flavor that I appreciated.
Some of Haya’s desserts are made on premise, like their flan, but I had to succumb to my taste buds and go for the most enticing options — a mochi roll ($3.50) and an order of green tea cake with red bean ice cream ($3.50) — no matter where they were made. Mochi rolls (sticky dough on the outside with red bean paste on the inside) are an acquired taste, but eating enough of one of these gushy treats can really help them to grow on you. But the green tea cake, made with macha powder, was exquisite from the first bite. The combination of flavors between the cake and the ice cream — one more settling, one sweeter — gave the dessert a balance that’s rare to find in the era of desserts with names like “triple chocolate explosion.”
I savored every morsel to pass through my lips, but nothing at Haya’s left me speechless.
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