SF: Top 3 May Openings

This article was first published here at Table8 where I am national editor. 

The 10 key openings of May are Itani Ramen in Oakland, Mac Daddy, Fenix, HomageSushi HashiriPopsonsOrson’s Belly, Bellota, Sababa and Laszlo’s reopening. While there are strengths at each — all but one of which I’ve visited — here are my top three newcomers… and why they stand out.

‘ĀINA, SF

From Bernal Heights brunch pop-up to brick-and-mortar, Dogpatch restaurant, ‘āina opened April 27 from Hawai’i-born chef Jordan Keao (who grew up on the Big Island), his wife Cheryl Liew and Jason Alonzo, who created an island-inspired (read: vaction-like), low-ABV cocktail menu. In keeping with their brunch roots, they’re serving brunch, with the likes of taro French toast, Wednesday through Sunday, and plan to add on dinner soon.

THE WHY: ‘āina means “that which feeds us” and the teams’ approach is home-style cuisine with gourmet flair, refined and reimagined from the ways you’ve had it before. From an “aloha” as you arrive to a “mahalo” as you depart, staff are trained on Hawaiian terminology and history and Keao and team source from local farms and also utilize Hawaiian ingredients.

DISH RECOMMENDS:From a preview dinner to an initial visit, favorite dishes are tough to narrow down, from inspired versions of Hawaiian classics like poke, loco moco and lomi lomi salmon to dreamy malasadas ($6 for 3), a beloved Hawaiian doughnut with Portuguese roots, here dusted in coconut sugar and filled with guava custard balanced by a whisper of beet. Then there is Keao’s own spam recipe wrapped in a red butter leaf with kimchi, rice, unagi sauce and egg yolk furikake, like a deconstructed musubi served Korean ssam-style ($4.50). But I also loved the Portuguese sausage hash ($16.50) laden with brussels sprouts, short grain rice, sunny side up eggs in green garlic salsa verde, or a lightly fried (in Japanese panko) chicken katsu ($15) using Mary’s organic chicken. The chicken is tender with juicy dark meat, while the plate is an artful play on Hawaiian plate lunch, although instead of Hawaiian mac n’ cheese, it’s udon noodles in Hawaiian mac-style and other bites from a folded omelette to grilled greens, dotted with curry carrot puree and katsu jelly.

DRINK RECOMMENDS: Alonzo’s drink menu (bar manager at La Folie, where he worked with Keao) walks a fine line of tropical without being sweet or kitschy, showcasing vermouths, amari and beers with bright ingredients. Initial standouts are Coconut Milk Punch, frozen with thicker, Taiwanese shaved ice kind of feel, mixing Carpano Antica Sweet Vermouth and Cardamaro cardamom liqueur with coconut milk, hibiscus and rose petal powdered sugar and vanilla. I love Hawaiian Vog ($8) served in a tall, earthenware glass. Crisp Lillet mingles with Byrrh aperitif, a spice blend and earl grey-infused caramelized banana, with an Asian, island feel capped by a dreamy, malted black sesame foam.