I drove past the building twice, drove around the block thinking that I was mistaken which street it was on, then finally pulled over and entered “Kaya” into my Google Maps app.
I was sitting directly in front of it.
And if the transformation of the exterior of the building, an old house in the Mills 50 District that for the last couple of decades was Dandelion Community Cafe, is surprising – it helps that it is no longer painted kelly green – the changes to the interior are even more stunning.
Where once there were boxy, angular walls there are now curves and swoops, white walls and ceilings and modern lighting and a saltillo tile floor (that doesn’t really match the rest of the decor). One very thoughtful design touch: The shelf over the bar that would usually be used for bottles, glassware and bartender tool has instead been staged with books, faux plants and other gewgaws. It’s a much nicer view for someone sitting at the bar, as I was.
That bar takes up about a quarter of the small space and is directly next to the kitchen, which in now thrust into the main dining area, making almost every seat in the place a chef’s table.
The chef in this instance is Lordfer Lalicon, who co-owns Kaya with Jamilyn Bailey. Both were formerly with Kadence, the omakase restaurant that last year became one of the area’s first winners of a Michelin Guide star.
Lalicon and Bailey already know that Kaya will be in the 2023 Florida Michelin Guide but won’t find out what level until awards are announced on May 11 in Miami. (The Florida Michelin Guide includes restaurants only from Miami, Tampa and Orlando.)
Whereas Kadence is primarily Japanese and sushi, the food at Kaya celebrates the Filipino heritage of its owners.
You can experience Kaya in one of two ways. You can make a reservation for its $95-per-person sama sama tasting menu or you can walk in and sit at the bar and order from the a la carte menu. When I attempted to make a reservation for the tasting menu, I was surprised to find that I could not reserve a table for one. On my own for the evening, I chose to sit at the bar.
The menu – dated and subject to change – featured a list of specials as well as sections with cold and hot dishes.
I chose the tortang talong, or eggplant omelet, that is a popular Filipino dish. But instead for the more common preparation of dipping a slice of eggplant in egg and frying it, Lalicon’s version resembled something more akin to a pancake. The flattened aubergine had the unmistakeable eggplant taste and texture and was topped with drizzled with aioli infused with fermented fish and plump smoked trout roe that popped with wonderful saltiness.
I also had the laing, a dish from the Bicol region of Phillipines. This one, too, was altered a bit in a way that made it a sort of Southern fusion dish. Instead of the traditional taro leaves, Lalicon used collards and swiss chard, stewing them in coconut milk. Also in the mix were bits of fried pork belly and tiny bay scallops. There were also yellow tomatoes that, I was told, were grown in the bartender’s garden, a phrase that in 35 years of reviewing restaurants had never been said to me. A full flavored dish that looked small but was quite filling.
Especially when paired with the sinangag, or garlic rice, which is the only description it needs.
Staff were knowledgable and friendly, from the woman at the host stand who waved at me through the front window as I was approaching as if she knew me (she didn’t) to the effervescent bartender who was also my server.
Kaya, which also goes by Kaya Natin, which means we can. This isn’t the only Filipino food in town but it is the only one among the few that offers such an elevated dining experience. Because they can.