Consider yourself lucky if you’re one of the six people sitting at the counter at ‘Aina, enjoying Chris Yang’s fixed price menu that gives a serious nod to Hawaiian food.
Not only do the six to seven courses reinvent classic dishes such as pipikaula, but at $60 the dinner is a deal; add $20 for wine pairings and it’s a steal.
Chef-owner Jordan Keao, who was raised on the Big Island, conceived the idea of ‘Aina first as a pop-up. Its Hawaiian brunch grew so popular he opened his brick-and-mortar Dogpatch location on the corner of 22nd and Minnesota in April 2016. Six months later, he started dinner and brought on Yang to head up the kitchen.
It’s clear that Yang and general manager and wine director Rai Calma are composing a love letter to the 50th state, and they’ve found there’s no better way to show their passion than by elevating the food. As with many culinary endeavors, the food at ‘Aina has become more complex as the staff has become more at ease in the kitchen, culminating in this menu.
In November, Yang debuted the tasting menu, served Friday through Sunday, at the six seats overlooking the kitchen and a counter filled with trays of microgreens and herbs clipped throughout the evening. (You must buy a ticket online in advance.)
The first course is kombu-cured kanpachi. The two slices of fish are loosely draped next to ti-leaf ricotta, hand-foraged seaweeds, sea grapes, pickled daikon and a dusting of fermented breadfruit shaved on top.
Preparations are complex and multilayered. The duck that comprises the second course is aged more than three weeks before being tea-smoked and hung for two more days. Duck is in every element of the presentation: in the swirl of egg yolk puree around the perimeter, in the crispy crouton fried in its fat, in the inky puddle of sauce in the middle, and even in the fried Brussels sprout leaves scattered around the plate. Yet this repetition isn’t boring. Every ingredient shines, and the duck is the thread that ties the elements together.
As part of the $20 pairings, for this course Calma chose the 2013 J. Wilkes Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County. In a nontraditional move, he switches from white to red and back to white to accompany the various dishes on the menu.
The traditional pipikaula is updated as slices of jerkylike Wagyu beef short rib meat that’s been marinated and smoked over kiawe wood imported from Hawaii. It’s served with bone marrow emulsion, black garlic puree and chicharrones made from beef tendons.
Hawaiian ingredients, combined with pristine Northern California products, distinguish each dish. Mahi mahi is accompanied by olena ginger and celery-root puree, barley steamed with koji mushrooms, and baby beets roasted in banana leaves to achieve a sweet, concentrated flavor.
Yang, who is behind the counter putting finishing touches on all the dishes, actually made me appreciate poi, part of the final main course, served with a slice of pork belly, smoked coconut foam and charred cabbage. Poi usually has the charm of wallpaper paste, but Yang (who gives a running commentary throughout the dinner) explained that while most poi is ground by machine, his is hand-pounded using a brick of compressed taro root. He then pounds it again with water so it comes out loose and silken.
The final course was a deconstructed ginger tart with coconut custard, macadamia nuts, pineapple, guava jam and black sesame ice cream.
It’s a menu that makes me reconsider the state of Hawaiian food. At this point it’s worth noting that perhaps two of the best Hawaiian restaurants in the country are in San Francisco — Liholiho Yacht Club and ‘Aina. If your exposure to Hawaiian Island cuisine was based on these two places and you loved the food, you’d book passage there without a second thought.
While the tasting menu is exceptional, it’s only one reason to visit. From start to finish the efficient service has an aloha spirit, and the interior, with its live plants and a large image of the Big Island over the kitchen, offers an understated homage to Hawaii.
Brunch is so popular it is offered on Friday as well as Saturday and Sunday. One taste of the French toast ($18) shows why the restaurant has captured a coveted place in the burgeoning brunch market. The bread is flown in from the Punalu’u Bake Shop on the Big Island, and the thick slices are served with bacon, macadamia nut crumble, salted coconut caramel, compressed persimmons and vanilla whipped cream.
Every egg dish has a unique component. Smoked mushrooms with Chinese sausage and pureed sweet potatoes are accompanied by poached eggs ($18.50); and chicken katsu ($18) shares the plate with a rolled omelet, Japanese curry, carrot puree and udon mac salad.
The restaurant also makes its own Spam ($6), a much looser and juicer version than the canned stuff. It’s served with Boston lettuce, kimchi and rice.
If at dinner you don’t feel like going all in for the tasting menu, you can order off the a la carte menu. While portions are larger than on the tasting menu, the effort that goes into each preparation is similar.
Yang’s stylized menu plays off familiar standards, including poke ($16). His consists of jewel-like cubes of tuna with smoked sesame oil, shaved Hawaiian hearts of palm, sea grass and sea beans that add a burst of saltiness. Roasted cauliflower ($9) is tossed with shiso verde, togarashi and forbidden rice.
Larger plates include Portuguese cassoulet ($23), highlighting that country’s influence on the cuisine. On one visit it was a deconstructed version with butter beans covered in shaved radishes, carrots and lettuces flanked by a hunk of pork belly and slices of Portuguese sausage, crumbles of pistachio brown-butter panko and edamame cream.
On other visits the menu included boneless chunks of short ribs ($27) so tender they were practically spreadable, with shaved fresh hearts of palm, broccoli de ciccio and a broth fortified with smoked mushrooms. So, too, with the Kiawe-smoked char siu ribs ($15), which are always featured; the meat fell off the bone with only slight pressure. The four ribs were all the better for their fermented red cabbage, bright sparks of basil and crunchy puffed rice.
The desserts are also surprisingly sophisticated, particularly the baked matcha mochi ($15), a kind of moist cake that includes caramel, sesame tuile, yuzu meringue, quince jam and macadamia nut ice cream. The haupia tart ($15), also excellent, includes a chocolate shortbread crust with coconut pudding, persimmon and a small scoop of sweet potato vinegar ice cream.
It made me vow to go to Hawaii to see if there was anything as good there.