Vana Paia got its inspiration from owners Michael Baskin’s and Sarah Spark’s favorite LA restaurants, and you can see some of that trendy California aesthetic seeping into their beautiful patio dining space created at the back of Paia Inn. It has a warm, easy vibe, and has come into its own with chef Sean Ikeda at the helm, and Jesus “Chuy” Vidales as general manager. The space got its start as a brunch spot called Paia Cafe. Vana is their sushi concept that followed.
“Paia Inn Cafe was our brunch concept that had been running for about three years prior to the opening of Vana,” says Michael Baskin, owner and designer. “Paia Inn Cafe was focused on a fresh, healthy breakfast and lunch menu with a few of our favorite brunch comfort foods thrown in. Think creative benedicts, sweet potato sandwiches, lamb shakshuka, local fruit parfaits – we wanted a well-rounded menu that offered a little something for everyone, whether they wanted to go indulgent or health-focused. We also had a full fresh-pressed juice menu and great turmeric and matcha lattes. Look for a revamp of our brunch menu coming soon! Vana is a departure from this initial concept – our team felt that there was a void in Pa’ia when it came to elevated food without stuffy service. Our menu is Japanese-inspired with a focus on fish and vegetable dishes. Our raw dishes and our nigiri truly capture the skill of our sushi team.”
The dining room sparkles in the evening with low lights, dark wood accents, and black metal highlights. There are tall community tables, and intimate two and four-top tables that can flex to fit different size parties. There is a partially open kitchen area that has a lot of action going on. In the back of the room, the bar glows with backlit bottles of fine liquors. Trees grown in and around this back courtyard provide a canopy of nature overhead, with which warm open bulb lights are hung from. There is even a private room in the back that you can reserve for parties.
“Maui is an incredibly diverse place when it comes to food – one of the best things about living here is the influence in our local food culture due to waves of immigration from Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Portugal, and so many more,” says Baskin. “After generations of living together and sharing ingredients and preparations, it’s sometimes hard to point to the true origin of a certain dish. This abundance of techniques, ingredients, and flavors are what Maui food culture means to us – there’s something to learn from every culture, whether it’s a unique method of pickling, a new cut of meat, or an unusual combination of spices.”
Vana has continued to finetune its menu, recently adding a bunch of new veggie dishes to round out its selection of raw, sushi rolls, and hot prepared share plates.
“We’ve recently expanded our vegetable section of the menu in order to highlight local, seasonal produce,” says Chuy Vidales, general manager. “At the moment we’re featuring broccolini, Japanese pumpkin, eggplant, cauliflower, shishitos, and ali’i mushrooms. Because these veggies won’t be available all year long, you can expect these dishes to change and evolve with the seasons. If you haven’t tried our raw dishes yet, be sure to stop in for the Hamachi Jalapeño and the Kanpachi Ceviche. We also buy the highest-quality rice available for our nigiri, rolls, and bowls – you’ll notice the difference.”
The signature item on the menu by chef Ikeda relates to the name, Vana as in sea urchin. They have incredible uni. Ikeda’s creativity can be seen throughout their Izakaya style tasting plates.
“The Vana Spoon is one of our favorite items!” says Vidales. “It’s our take on an oyster shooter – but with fresh uni (sea urchin) and a housemade dashi (Japanese broth made with kombu). We take it even further with our garnishes – shiso, yuzu mayo, and wasabi hit all the flavor notes in this surprisingly complex bite.” The easy going space and high-minded dishes have created a fun destination for dining in Pa’ia, but they welcome those who just want a quick stop in too. The versatility is appealing.
“Vana is where you want to take your date for a special night out, or where to celebrate when on island for only a few days,” says Vidales. “It’s where your group of girlfriends can come sit at the chef’s counter and experience a true sushi experience, or where you can swap vacation stories with new friends at our communal table. It’s where you can meet other locals at our Jade Bar while sipping on a Vana Club (our take on a Pisco Sour) or run in for a quick handroll and a beer before catching a sunset session at Ho’okipa.”
Ikeda and Vidales keep their focus on buying local, for the best flavors and quality.
“It’s even more imperative in Hawai’i than in the mainland to practice careful sourcing and keep a close eye on sustainability – the best way to do that is to buy our produce and fish from the best on-island sources available,” says Vidales. “There’s an incredible diversity of local vegetables and fruits available too – it’s an exciting challenge for our kitchen staff to learn new ways of incorporating some of the lesser-known produce we can get our hands on, such as finger limes, kukui nut, and pohole fern.”
The menu spans plenty of options for vegans, vegetarians, and sea- and land-protein eaters. I got excited over the veggie selection; you could do a simple veggie and wine pau hana sampling here easily. The salads take it to the next level with ingredients like prawns and fresh burrata. The hot dishes of local snapper curry, pan seared scallops, and New York strip will satisfy any substantial hunger. The sushi menu is modern but covers all the expected classic favorites.
“Vana is a Japanese-inspired small plates restaurant with a focus on Izakaya-style food and drinks,” says Baskin. “We have a full bar with an extensive wine and sake list, and all our syrups and juices are made in house. Because we’re tucked back away from the noise of Hana Highway, our garden patio is the perfect place to catch up with friends or enjoy a romantic evening out. In Japan, the concept of Izakaya means drinks come first, food comes second. We want to turn that idea on its head and give just as much (if not more) thought to our cuisine. However, we still want to bring the fun, communal vibe of a traditional ‘sake shop’ or ‘drinking house’ to Pa’ia! Think tapas-style small plates meant to be passed between friends over a bottle of crisp Junmai sake. But trust us, all of our dishes taste just as good without booze.”
all images by Sean M. Hower©
93 Hana Hwy #3, Pa’ia
Dinner: 5-10pm, daily
Brunch: 8am-2pm, weekends
Cuisine: Japanese, Izakaya, Vegetarian, Brunch