Menus at local Japanese restaurants tend to run long but often are short on originality. People who frequent sushi bars usually can order their favorite rolls by rote.
Visit Chiba, however, and you'll want to give that menu a closer look. Chiba is new, thoroughly contemporary and very stylish. In its own way, however, the food manages to make Japanese cuisine seem exotic and revelatory again.
Here, a recent special featured glistening salmon slices, twisted into shapes like chess pieces, each wrapped around a fat, tart blackberry with pearly red bits of tobiko. Fruit is used like sweet fish in some rolls, like the satsuma-strawberry roll, a showstopper. And while I'd rarely recommend steak at a Japanese restaurant. A New York strip here is a welcome exception. It is sliced as thin as sashimi and proved nearly as tender — its scarlet depths streaked with a mirin marinade with the warm spices of tasso underneath it.
First-time restaurateur Keith Dusko opened Chiba in March. Dusko logged many years in New York City's Japanese restaurant scene and has brought that experience to bear here. Chiba stands out from local Japanese restaurants in many ways, and price is one of them. You'll end up paying here what you'd expect at a nice bistro. A happy hour (daily from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and reprised an hour before closing each night) has good deals on a few rolls, hot bar snacks and drinks.
Chiba's overall approach avoids predictability, and it's refreshing but not without pitfalls. A yellowtail ceviche special with blueberries and shredded sweet potato required better chopstick skills than we could manage. I was excited to see how the Chiba grand platter might reinterpret a chilled fruits de mer platter, but it resulted in some of the dullest eating in the house, with disagreeably bitter clams and squid salad minced to the point of mush. Soy-soaked oyster shooters were the only part of the elaborate presentation I'd repeat.
These were exceptions, however. In addition to its creative successes Chiba keeps an exceptionally well-stocked sushi bar. The tuna, for instance, starts off with beautiful maguro the color of red wine and ranges up a few rungs to otoro, the fattiest — and most expensive — cut, which arrives the color of rose. Chiba also makes a specialty of live shellfish, which are done in by the sushi knife just after you order it. A good raw scallop should be full of sweet, marine flavor; Chiba's live scallop has that but also a floral silkiness. The acidic bounce from a lemon garnish practically made the scallop flesh jump, and chased with some cool, melon-scented sake, it was an unforgettable taste.
Now that New Orleanians can get a sushi lunch at a grocery store and have sashimi delivered like pizza, it's nice to find a restaurant like Chiba that shakes things up again.