I love Hawaii. I visit the islands at least once a year. There’s something about the people, culture, and food that makes me feel right at home; it also warms my heart when Hawaiians think I’m a local too. When I’m home in SF, I constantly crave guava malasadas from Leonard’s, coco puffs and mochi donuts from Liliha Bakery, pipikaula ribs and luau squid from Helena’s, and shaved ice from Ululani’s. I heard about a Hawaiian restaurant in the Dogpatch called āina that served up modern Hawaiian food. I was dubious at first because well-cooked Hawaiian cuisine is so hard to find on the mainland. But then āina kept getting rave restaurant reviews and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I booked the first available tasting menu reservation.

Chris and I like trying out the tasting menu when visiting a new restaurant. A tasting menu typically consists of new concept dishes the chef is working on but also has some of the all-time restaurant signatures. It’s a beautiful way to be introduced to a restaurant’s concept and flavors. This month’s Chef’s Tasting Menu featured the theme “Plantation.” Hawaii has a long history of plantation life and Hawaii became a true melting pot because of them. Hawaiian cuisine is influenced by so many different ethnicities and backgrounds because people of different cultures were sharing their food with other people since food is the real universal language. And that’s what āina is putting forward with this tasting menu.

āina cooks with the seasons. I love this about good restaurants – they cook what’s in season and alter recipes and dishes to make what tastes best. I learned that āina teams up with local farmers and providers so we’re eating local and the freshest ingredients. There are certain ingredients that āina stays true to and has flown in from Hawaii. One thing they told us was that the cost of flying in the taro bread used in their french toast costs much more than if they made it themselves, but they want that authentic taro bun taste (which is absolutely true – there’s something magical about Hawaiian taro buns). These were all great signs of a great restaurant even before the food was brought out.

The Food

The tasting menu is only available at the chef’s counter so there is limited seating (book early!). The chef’s counter tasting menu was also really reasonably priced at $90 per person; wine pairing is only an additional $35 and the pours were extremely generous. On the night we went, the menu lists six dishes, but the chef sent out two additional ones making it a total of eight.

Here are my four favorites:

Tonkatsu Donburi
They made their own tomato jam for this dish with overripe tomatoes that a local farmer sells at the San Francisco Ferry Building. The tonkatsu was not a typical piece of meat just fried up; they braised the meat first and then breaded and deep fried. They added smoked trout roe, takuan relish, fermented cabbage, and tempura flakes to round off the dish. I really wanted to lick the plate.

Chris bonded with the chef over this dish for a moment when they both said the best saimin is from McDonald’s on the islands. āina’s saimin was so amazing that I accidentally ate it all – AND drank all the broth. The broth was a fish fumet with lemongrass. Rich and deep in flavor. Nori noodles that they made in house. Pork tongue, char siu, and homemade smoked spam (did I mention they do head to tail cooking? One whole hog is delivered each week and they make their own spam, lap cheong, ribs, everything). What more can a girl want in a noodle dish?

Beef Stew
Not only did I love the food, I loved the actual bowl (seriously, where did you guys buy it from?). Barley instead of rice, and it was a good call. Barley was the correct texture to balance the unctuousness of the dish that was braised wagyu beef cheeks. Roasted carrots provided an earthiness and sweetness to the dish. And this part blows my mind: they took the beef fat, whipped it up to resemble egg whites, and then topped it with a smoked egg yolk. Once everything was mixed up, it was the perfect bite.

I don’t usually rave about desserts from a savory chef; from my experience, I’ve only had decent desserts when the restaurant has a pastry chef. I would rank this dessert as one of my top five best restaurant desserts ever. Bibingka is a Filipino cake that was the predecessor of the beloved butter mochi – and that’s exactly what the cake tasted like. The chewy cake paired really well with coconut jam, burnt honeycomb brittle (OMG, this is what made the whole dish so good), and macerated blackberries. The dish was sweet, tart, and bitter. It hit all the right notes for the end of the meal.

The Verdict

I’m in love with āina. The food was absolutely beautiful and delicious. Staying true to Hawaiian cuisine but also throwing in new and creative ways to reinvent old dishes. It’s clear that Chef Chris Yang has a real passion for the food he’s making. And GM Rai is such a friendly face that he makes the restaurant really embody the aloha spirit. Definitely will be coming back very soon.

900 22nd St
San Francisco, CA 94107

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