You’ve probably heard of ‘aina, the Hawiian-inspired restaurant in San Francisco’s Dogpatch, for its super-popular (read: two hour wait) brunch. Yes, chef Jordan Keao’s warm, chewy malasadas are filled with perfectly tart and creamy guava custard and the dreamy French toast is made with taro bread overnighted from the Punalu’u Bake Shop in Hawaii. It is certainly an original and welcome departure from the gaggle of indistinguishable brunch spots.
But dinner service, which was added in October, is on another level entirely. Keao, a native of Hilo and a former Google chef, has a scholarly knowledge of indigenous Hawaiian cuisine, and the menu — a selection of snacks (Pupus, $8-$9), small plates (Small Kine, $13-$16), entrees (Kau Kau, $21-$36) and vegetables (Binchotan, $6-$9) — is his love song to the islands, including the culinary influences of the Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese.
‘Aina means land, and you can feel the team’s (which includes Keao’s wife Cheryl Liew and general manager Jason Alonzo) affection for it even in the dining room, from the seemingly sun-kissed blond wood tables to the potted succulents and portrait of outrigger canoes bobbing on the shores of Hilo Bay. Perhaps it’s why the restaurant has been an instant success, not only with homesick Hawaiians but with Michelin, which granted it Bib Gourmand honors in October.
“I wanted to refocus people’s understanding of what Hawaiian food is,” says Keao, who grew up free-diving for fish and rarely turning on a stove. His family cooked over coals. “To return to scratch-cooking and honor the people of Hawaii, and put the spirit of that aloha out there.”
Keao takes original dishes and gives them razor-sharp refinement using classic training (Art Institute of California, San Diego) and top-notch local ingredients. Save for a few key imported items, including fresh hearts of palm and kiawe wood for smoking pork ribs, Keao sources his ingredients from certified organic farms in Sonoma. Spam for the spam bao ($8) is made in-house using pork from Alamo’s Stone Valley Farm, then tucked into pastry chef Harley Tunac’s impossibly soft, steamed bao and topped with yuzu kosho aioli and smoked trout roe. Kiddos (young and old) will want one of these sensational little hot dogs.
Other dishes aren’t as cohesive — at first. Charred octopus luau ($16) is inspired by a style of cooking in Hawaii that dates back 1,000 years, according to Keao. For this dish, octopus is grilled over charcoal and accompanied by rainbow swiss chard with kalo coconut cream, vadouvan-spiced almonds and German butterball potato. Nibbled individually, the ingredients feel disjointed; the chard is grassy, the octopus, sweet. But get a bit of everything on your fork and the dish sings.
A Honu cocktail is made with Byrrh, an aperitif, as well as Ferreira white port, lemon, pepper syrup, anise hyssop and lemon verbena sugar. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group)
Two dishes infused with aloha spirit — generous, shareable, messy and fun to eat — are the kiawe wood-smoked barbecue char siu pork ribs ($13) with pickled red cabbage and puff rice, and the Portuguese butter bean cassoulet ($30), a large, round platter of spicy Stone Valley Farm Portuguese sausage, kalua pork belly, Iacopi Farms (Half Moon Bay) butter beans and vibrant, almost Technicolor-green edamame cream. It’s all topped with the yummiest pistachio brown butter panko crumbs. Salivating yet?
You will when one of Alonzo’s low-proof Hawaiian sodas ($13) hits your lips. On our visit, the cocktail featured anise hyssop-infused Lillet, grilled watermelon juice, matcha, lemon juice, Kara coconut cream, kaffir lime leaf and vanilla bean on the rocks with a soda float. If you go during that famed brunch service, you’ll want the Punch “Bowl” for 4 ($22), which is laced with reduced papaya and a syrup of torched rosemary. So much aloha, it just might transport you.
WHERE: 900 22nd St., San Francisco
CONTACT: 415-814-3815; ainasf.com
HOURS: Dinner Tuesday-Friday and brunch Wednesday-Sunday. Saturday dinner service starts Feb. 4.
PRICES: Entrees $21-$36
VEGETARIAN: Okinawan sweet potato gnocchi with banana leaf ricotta and charred eggplant puree ($21), kabocha squash with black vinegar ($7), cauliflower steak with black rice and shiso verde ($9)
BEVERAGES: Wines from France and California, plus Hawaiian beers and island-inspired cocktails
RESERVATIONS: Available 30 days in advance (and released at midnight) via Resy. Limited seating via Open Table.
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: This is the Dogpatch, so street parking is doable
KIDS: Keikis can chow on spam bao ($8), which resembles a hot dog and is made with Stone Valley Farm pork.
PLUSES: High-end Hawaiian-inspired cuisine made with local ingredients
MINUSES: Not a minus as much as dining advice: Make sure to get a little bit of everything on your fork, down to the sauce. Otherwise, some flavors and ingredients on your plate can come across as disjointed.
DATE OPENED: April (brunch only); dinner added in October