Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Brunch at 'āina

I waited 2.5 hours for brunch.  Yes, I became one of those San Franciscans who spent her entire Sunday morning, and afternoon, brunching.  I became one of the people who I usually silently judge as I walk by, standing in a long line outside a hot brunch spot on a weekend morning.  Yes, I spent hours standing on a sidewalk, just to get seated in a tiny restaurant for brunch.  I left my house at 10am, finally got my first bite of food at 1:30pm, and got back home at 3:30pm.  And that was my day.

Now that I've got that out there, I guess I can explain why.

I had visitors in town, and we wanted brunch.  Normally, when entertaining out of town guests I find somewhere that takes reservations, and don't deal with this waiting crap, for my sake and theirs.  But ... I really wanted to try somewhere new, and all the best places don't take reservations.  I had been reading about 'āina for months, and was just waiting for an opportunity to visit, so it was at the top of my list.  In retrospect, going to a crazy popular, tiny brunch place that doesn't take reservations with a group of 4 was entirely foolish, and if I really wanted to go, I really should have gone with just one other person.  And gone early.  But, foolish I was, and arrived at 11am on a Sunday.

But let me back up a bit.  What made 'āina so appealing to me?  Well, it is different than your standard San Francisco fare, serving up Hawaiian fusion cuisine, open for brunch Wed - Sun and dinner Tues - Sat.  Yes, roll your eyes even more now, I know, not only did I wait in a ridiculous line, I waited for fusion food.  Yes, yes I did.

For dinner, they do take reservations, but at brunch they take reservations for only one table for 6, at fixed 9am and 12pm seatings.  I actually tried to snag those reservations, for both Saturday and Sunday, for any time slot, knowing I could fill the seats, but, they were gone as soon as they opened up.  So, wait we did.
Brunch.
By the time we were finally seated, we were starving, and ended up ordering 5 dishes to share amongst the 4 of us.  We easily polished it all off.

Was it worth the ridiculous wait?  Well, no.  But was it a unique and very tasty meal?  Yes.  I really enjoyed the slightly less usual ingredients used and the incredibly flavorful dishes.  I'd gladly return, perhaps for dinner when I could make a reservation, perhaps mid-week for bunch if I somehow decided to take a day off, or perhaps even on a weekend, just only with one person, and, earlier.

The Setting

'āina is located in the Dogpatch, a block or two off the main drag, down a side street, in a residential area, across from a park.
Milling About.
I arrived at 11am, to eat brunch with a group of 4.  I should have known better.  I did know that I'd have a wait.  I knew 'āina was popular.  I just didn't imagine the wait would be more than an hour, and when I asked to have my name added to the list and was quoted over an hour, I still didn't really believe it.  I should have known better.

Let's just say I became very familiar with the stretch of sidewalk out front from which I feared to stray, where I would remain for the next two hours.

Some other groups did leave, to take a walk and return to find they had missed their turns.  Others left to get coffee while they waited, to return to find that they were not allowed inside with it.  We listened to the hostess turn away group after group with coffee in their hands, asking them to throw it out.  Given the ridiculous waits, this policy seemed a bit cruel, particularly given that they didn't have a togo coffee window or anything themselves.

But we stayed, planted on the sidewalk, right out front, for over 2 hours.  And we waited.  And waited.  And watched.  I checked in on our place in line several times throughout the wait, knowing exactly how many other groups >2 were ahead of us.  I observed through the windows as tables opened up, and then immediately got seated with groups of two, over and over again.  I watched, extremely frustrated, as a 2-top opened up, and a pair that showed up 1.5 hours after us was seated, and then the very next table, also for two, opened up moments later.  Combining adjacent tables to seat larger parties was just not something they seemed inclined to do.   Instead, it seemed all groups bigger than two were destined for exactly two tables.

The two tables got seated, and there was one other group of 4 ahead of us.  I knew we just had to wait for the tables to turn one more time.  Or so I thought.  One table emptied, and the group ahead of us was seated.  We were next.  I knew we were next.  The other table for 4 opened up.  Under my watchful eyes, it slowly got cleared, and reset.  I was ready.  Ready for her to call my name and seat us.

And then, the unfathomable happened.  She beckoned to another group.  They arrived at least an hour after us.  What??!!!  They were seated.  We now had to wait for the restaurant to turn ... another time?  I was already incredibly frustrated with the use of a greedy algorithm to fill every table immediately, rather than combining to seat larger groups, but this threw me over the edge.  That, and the fact that I'd been waiting for nearly 2 hours.  I marched up to the hostess to ask, as politely as possible, "WTF!"  She told me that they "had an arrangement".  She told me we were next, and pointed at the two tables that had just recently been seated, indicating that we'd be waiting for those, as I expected.

I wish I could say that I was ok with this course of events, but, I was not.  I really considered leaving, as I was rubbed the wrong way by it in so many ways (and the whole coffee policy).  For a restaurant touting the "warmth and hospitality of the island spirit", I can safely say, I did not feel it.
Interior.
'āina is not a large restaurant, comprised mostly tables for two, plus that one larger table that is available by reservation only, and some counter seats.

Although small, it is bright and light filled, with comfortable seating and lively plants on the wall (and tables!).  It was a nice atmosphere, actually.

Not pictured here is the near side of the space, with a couple counter seats along the bar area where espresso drinks and cocktails were flowing, plus a pass into the (likely tiny) kitchen.
Place Setting.
The tables (and benches) were made from beautiful wood, and were set with plates that felt homy and welcoming.  We even had a little succulent on the table.

Service was fine, although we weren't really checked in on, and did need to flag someone down when we decided to order more.

Drinks

Once seated, we were provided a large beaker of house sparkling (or still) water.  As always I appreciated the house sparkling water, and the ability to refill my glass as I pleased.  I drink a lot of sparkling water.
St. Frank Coffee (decaf). $4.50.
I opted for decaf coffee since it was now afternoon, and I cut myself off from caffeine after noon.

The wait for coffee was rather long, it took probably 10 minutes to show up after we ordered it.  My coffee came in a large ceramic mug, again, comforting.  Mine was piping hot, but one of my dining companions commented that his was barely lukewarm.  Maybe his was made sooner and just not brought out until mine was ready too?

Anyway, the coffee was not very good.  I'm not sure if you can see it here, but there was a large oil slick on the entire top surface.  If I didn't know better, I'd think that they used a dirty, oily cup, but I think it likely was the result of very oily beans and a poor extraction method.  I didn't bother complain, but it was not very pleasant coffee.

Food

There are many things about 'āina that appealed to me, obviously, enough to make me visit a reservation-less place for brunch, but the primary thing I was excited about was, well, the food.  And not just because it gets such good reviews, or because it is brunch, but, specifically, because the menu had a slew of unique dishes I wanted to try.  Hawaiian cuisine is not something I encounter often, and I was really excited to see ingredients I love all over the eclectic lineup.

The menu had only 11 items on it, but honestly, I would have gladly tried basically any dish.  Even if I didn't care for the primary element of a dish, like, the chicken katsu, I still supported ordering it because I knew it came with a creamy, aioli laden udon noodle salad on the side, which I desperately did want to try.  In the end, our group of 4 ordered 4 dishes to share, family style.  And then we added one more on at the end.  We were starving by this point!

Of the first four we ordered, two were my top two picks, and I refused to visit 'āina without trying them - their version of french toast and breakfast potatoes, which may sound ordinary, but I assure you, neither was.  Spoiler: the french toast was made with taro bread, and drizzled with coconut caramel, vanilla whipped cream, macadamia nut crumble, among other goodies, and the breakfast potatoes are topped with aioli and furikake.  Yes, yes, yes.  The other two dishes we ordered were mostly to satisfy the savory breakfast eaters of the group (chicken katsu and loco moco), and the final add-on was just the others going rouge and wanting more.

There were 3 other dishes I did want to try but was not able to.  One was malasadas, portuguese sugar coated donuts.  As an avid donut lover, and fan of sweet carbs for brunch, you'd think these would be at the top of my list, but, since they were filled with guava custard, I wasn't as excited.  I still did lament not trying them as nearly every other table ordered them.  The other smaller dish that looked like a lot of fun is their house made spam, served in a lettuce wrap ssam style.  I mean, really, how did we not try this?  And finally, the smoked honshimeji & king oyster mushrooms.  Yup, the mushroom dish.  First, well, because I do love wild mushrooms, but also because it came with okinawan sweet potato puree (my fav kind of potato!) and grilled portuguese sweet bread.  Like I said, every dish had really fascinating components.

I loved the french toast and potatoes though, so, I was happy with our order, and would be hard pressed to get anything else on another visit.
Breakfast Potatoes. $7.
"Kennebec potatoes, aïoli, furikake, compound butter, japanese pickles, micro cilantro."

This was the first dish I took a bite of, and, quite literally, one bite in, my grumpiness about waiting for hours vanished.

The potatoes were that good.  Yes, the potatoes.  The Yelpers had said this, which is why I ordered the potatoes in the first place, but, nothing prepared me for how delicious these potatoes were.  I was not expecting breakfast potatoes to blow me away, but, they did.

These breakfast potatoes were different from any preparation I have had before, and I'm not just talking about the toppings.  The potatoes themselves were sliced into rounds, then cut in half, and fried.  Since they were fried, they weren't really like homefries, but more like french fries, except that they were not thick like steak fries, and had much more surface area than regular fries.  They were super crispy, clearly freshly fried in a small batch, and really a wonderful form factor.

And then ... the toppings.  They were drizzled, very generously, with creamy aioli.  I adore aioli, and choose to dunk my fries/potatoes in aioli over nearly any other choice normally, so, this was a winning component for me, and I'm glad they didn't hold back on the aioli application.

Then, sprinkled on top was furikake.  If you have never had furikake before, its basically one of the best condiments ever, with a bit of crunch from sesame seeds, tons of flavor from seaweed and ground dried fish, and then salt, sugar, and MSG to just make it ridiculously addicting in all ways at once.  It amped up the flavor of this dish considerably.  Also on top were a few sprigs of micro cilantro, that got entirely lost amongst all the other goodness.

The menu listed "compound butter" as an ingredient, and I'm not sure where that was exactly.  Maybe the potatoes were actually fried in butter?

The only thing I didn't care for was the Japanese pickles on the side.

Anyway, this dish had everything you want in a potato dish - perfectly crispy potatoes, creamy sauce, crazy flavorful condiment.  I easily polished off nearly this entire plate.

My second favorite dish of the meal, but it didn't register in the top 3 for the others.  I really don't know why.  These potatoes were excellent, and I'd certainly get them again.
Kahlbi Loco Moco. $19.
"Slow braised kalbi short rib, smoked honshimeji mushroom jus, short grain rice, sunny side up eggs, hearts of palm pico de gallo, cilantro, pea tendrils."

We needed an egg dish, even if I didn't really want one.  I clearly would have gone for the smoked mushroom dish with slow poached eggs because I love king oyster mushrooms and it came with a fascinating sounding okinawan sweet potato puree and Portuguese sweet bread, but, the loco moco got the votes of everyone else.

Since I don't really like short ribs, rice, or eggs, particularly sunny side up, there was very little that appealed to me here, and I didn't actually try it.  One diner did say it was his second choice, but everyone else seemed indifferent to it.
 Punalu’u Bakery Taro French Toast (full). $17.
"Taro portuguese bread, applewood smoked bacon, macadamia nut crumble, coconut caramel, pomegranate seeds, vanilla whipped cream, mint."

This dish is really why we were at 'āina.  While there are many attractions on the menu, and the restaurant has gotten such good reviews, it was this dish that I needed to have.

I absolutely love taro.  I like savory taro fries or mash, I like sweet taro milk teas, I like taro in desserts.  And I obviously like decadent breakfast carbs like french toast.  Combine these two things, and I just couldn't resist.  And then, top with a sweet sauce (coconut caramel), crunchy components (pomegranate seeds, macadamia nut crumble), and something creamy (vanilla whipped cream), and I couldn't imagine a better bite.

Let's just say I had high expectations, and, it actually lived up.

The taro french toast is available in two serving sizes, a single, thick slice (half serving) or two (full serving).  Since we had 4 people, we went for a full serve, and I think we easily could have taken down a second serving.

The french toast came drizzled generously with coconut caramel.  I really loved the caramel, and could taste the coconut in it more than I expected.  The presentation of the dish was nice, but I did almost wish we had been provided with a little pitcher of that caramel, as I certainly would have used more, and, as it was, I rubbed my chunk of french toast around in the pool of caramel on the plate to get as much as possible.

The french toast itself was large, thick slices, very moist, not eggy (my pet peeve when it comes to french toast!)  The taro was more subtle than I would have liked, but I could still taste it, and the bread had a lovely purple hue.

Perched on top was slices of bacon, nicely crispy, sweet because they were also coated in caramel.  The bacon was good, but, unnecessary, this dish was awesome enough without bacon.

Scattered around were pomegranate seeds that actually did make me a bit grumpy, as I don't like pomegranate seeds, and they were in the way.  I'm sure if you like pomegranate though, these added a great crunch.  I did like the other crunchy element, the macadamia crumble, and it went great with the coconut and taro flavors, and, being a texture girl, I really liked having something crunchy.

And finally, three puffs of whipped cream, each topped with a bit of chiffonade mint.

This was, hands down, the winning dish of the meal.  Of the 4 dishes we originally ordered, it was everyone's top pick, without hesitation.  Once we added on a 5th, extra dish, that took the top slot for two diners, knocking this down to second place for them, but still, overall, the most successful.

I'd gladly get this again, and I'm pretty sure I could eat the half size myself with no problem.  Or order the full, and bring half home for later.
Chicken Katsu. $17.
"Mary’s chicken, folded omelette, curry carrot purée, udon noodles, aioli, katsu jelly, grilled seasonal greens."

There was a lot going on on this very large plate.

Drawn on the plate in an X shape in the middle was curry carrot puree.  The front half of the plate held the crispy chicken cutlet, sliced into pieces.  There was a glob of katsu jelly beside it.

Then, in back, the omelette, folded, and sliced into triangle shapes.  And the "grilled seasonal greens", which seemed to be broccolini.  And, uh, cauliflower.  And aioli covered udon noodle salad, wound up into a log shape.  Yes, there was a lot going on here.

It didn't necessarily all make sense.  What were we supposed to do with the carrot puree?  Was it a complimentary sauce for the chicken?  If so, there certainly wasn't enough of it.  It was gone by the time the plate made its way to me, so I didn't get to try it anyway.  I did try the dark jelly, which was super salty, and reminded me of vegemite.  And why did the dish have a full serving of chicken and an omelet on it?  I really don't know.  Since I don't like eggs or chicken, I didn't try these components, nor did I try the veggies.

But I did try the noodles.  I had far more than my share of the noodles, as I seemed to be the only one excited by them.  They were absolutely covered in the aioli and spices, super creamy and flavorful.  The noodles were served cold, a fact which surprised one of my fellow diners.  He really wanted them warm, but I don't understand how these noodles would have made sense warm with aioli on them.  Anyway, I really liked the noodles, but I was glad the portion was so small, as they were very very rich, and more than a few mouthfuls actually would have been too much.

This dish was the third pick for three of us, the others for the actual chicken, me for the noodles.
Auntie's Banana Bread. $11.
"House made banana bread, papaya puree, kinako sabayon, sesame honeycomb, & fried curry leaves." 

After we finished the 4 dishes we had ordered, the others wanted to order something more, as they weren't quite satisfied.  I was still eying some of the other dishes, like the spam or the mushroom dish I wanted the first time around, but, going back to savory items at this point didn't seem right.  We could have gone for the malasadas, which did seem like an appropriate dessert, but everyone else wanted the banana bread, and since I wasn't really hungry and was totally satisfied by the taro french toast, I went along with their pick, although I did say that I didn't really want more than a bite.

I did try my bite though, of course, once it came.  Like everything else, it took a while, and we clearly had thrown off our server, and perhaps the kitchen, a bit by ordering again.  Our plates were cleared and reset for us, as we settled in to wait.

The banana bread was a very thick, large slice, served warm and toasted.  It had a few sugar coated fried curry leaves on top, a tiny piece of sesame honeycomb and a dollop of the kinako sabayon on the side, and a spiral of papaya puree on the plate.

Everyone else loved this.  To me, sure, it was warm, nice, moist banana bread, but, well, it was just banana bread.  How exciting could banana bread be?  The sabayon was a nice touch, but there was very little of it.  For me to like banana bread, I at least had to slather it in something (like the warm banana bread with whipped cream cheese at Universal Cafe, literally, the only banana bread I think I've ever really liked).  I did like the sesame honeycomb, and may or may not have taken the entire sweet, crunchy piece.  It wasn't just sweet candy that drew me in, it really did have an incredible sesame flavor.

Two of my fellow diners ranked this their top choice, kicking my beloved french toast out of the top slot.
Aina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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