Is Restaurant Senia Worth the Hype?
Two talented chefs open long-awaited Senia in Chinatown.
Clash of continental flavors: Glazed Kurobuta pork belly with beet “char siu,” Middle Eastern harissa, house-made pickles and Mānoa lettuce serves three to four.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Restaurant Senia, 8:30 p.m. on a Monday: The open kitchen is calm, but also slammed. It’s out of several things already: the bone marrow custard with beef cheek marmalade. The sticky toffee cake, a sophisticated variation of the British dessert sticky toffee pudding. And the Kusshi oyster with yuzu kosho and ogo.
SEE ALSO: First Look: Senia Opens in Chinatown
“It was crazy,” Katherine Nomura, Senia’s general manager and co-owner, recalled a few days later. “People ordered a lot of things. They were just hungry.”
This might also have been a case of built-up demand. Senia (pronounced SEN-ya), co-owned and run by Per Se alums Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, was originally slated to begin serving in the spring of 2016, but only opened its doors in mid-December after permitting and construction delays.
Chris Kajioka (left) and Anthony Rush.
Kajioka, Rush and Nomura used the extra time wisely. Rush and Nomura—who are married—brainstormed a craft-heavy, creative cocktail list that suggests sun and speakeasy at the same time. Rush and sous chef Pat Collins explored O‘ahu’s hiking trails and foraged for inspiration, coming home with mountain apples, mangoes and strawberry guavas. The Senia team commissioned a monkeypod chef’s counter and hefty, rustic rounds of monkeypod for some of its serving pieces. Nomura’s sister designed an intriguing logo based on an MRI cross-section of a pineapple, a symbol that has resonance from small-kid-time Hawai‘i to the East Coast, where the exotic fruit has symbolized hospitality for centuries.
Senia’s Twitter account fired up almost a year before the stove for its main dining room did. Rush and Kajioka held pop-up dinners in cities where they had worked, including New York and San Francisco, that were Instagrammed by industry influencers. The New York Times ran a story on Senia four months before it opened, and Eater called it one of the year’s most anticipated restaurant openings.
The 50-seat restaurant aims to fulfill many functions, with a main dining room where you can order from an ever-changing menu; a 12-seat “chef’s counter” that faces the open kitchen, where for $185 you’ll be treated to a customized tasting menu; and a private dining room upstairs. Very soon, it’ll start lunch service, too. I had dinner twice in the main dining room.
Given the hype and the pedigree, you’d expect Senia to be a rarefied sort of place, but Kajioka says no: “I don’t want it to be a special-occasion place. I would like everybody to be able to afford to come, and feel like it’s their neighborhood spot.”
Senia’s simple décor, with an exposed brick wall, a brown-and-blue palette and potted plants, exudes a neutral vibe that also makes it curiously accessible. I’d be comfortable bringing my parents here, dining with 30-, 40- and 50-something friends, or recommending it to that 20-something foodie nephew who’s visiting from Portland and crashing on my couch. On our visits, diners represented a cross-section of America, skewed toward Hawai‘i: groups of visitors from out of town, an endless flow of downtown workers pau hana, and millennials and postmillennials, with and without body art and piercings. We just missed the couple from Alberta, Canada, who only decided to come to Hawai‘i after hearing that Senia had opened.
And then there was the man at the table across from ours, who walked over in the middle of dinner and told us he was from California. That he liked to eat at world-class restaurants like Per Se and The French Laundry. He said, “I have to tell you. This has been one of the finest. Meals. Of my life.” (If you want to duplicate his experience, he ordered barbecued beets, charred cabbage and hot-smoked salmon.)
Hot-smoked salmon with cauliflower, date gel, lemon and almond.
But don’t wait too long, because the menu is evolving constantly, and Kajioka and Rush intend to change it up, according to what’s available seasonally and what they just feel like cooking. It even evolved significantly between my two visits, separated by three weeks. When I asked Kajioka why they’d replaced one of my favorite dishes from visit one, house-made bucatini with stracciatella (creamy mozzarella strands) and saffron, with another (admittedly delicious) bucatini dish that featured crab, I expected a businessperson’s answer about how stracciatella took too long to make, or a chef’s answer, about the freshness of available ingredients. Instead, I got an eater’s answer, and a grin: “Because we wanted to eat crab pasta.”
This whimsical, personal approach to what to cook is underpinned by more than three combined decades of rigorous training and experience between Rush and Kajioka, in some of the world’s best kitchens. They met at the three-Michelin-starred Per Se, Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant (where Nomura worked the front of the house). They cooked together for years, then kept in touch when each moved on. Says Rush, “I don’t know how many chefs I’ve worked with in the past 20 years, but there’s only a small handful that you get super close to, and respect and admire. After I left New York, I remember Katherine asking me years ago: If we do something in London, is there anybody you’d want to work with? And I said, Chris.”
Charred cabbage with shio kombu, green goddess and buttermilk is fast becoming Senia’s star dish.
Senia’s menu reflects both Kajioka’s and Rush’s shared training and diverse experiences. A combination of playfulness and attention to detail is evident everywhere. Not just cabbage, or even locally grown cabbage, but Caraflex cabbage, a coneheaded European green known for its sweetness and grown especially for the restaurant by Hirabara Farms. Not just good oysters, but Kusshi oysters, small, exquisitely clean-tasting, from British Columbia. Sous chef Pat Collins makes all of Senia’s excellent pasta from scratch. They color the char siu glaze for their elaborate pork belly sharing plate with beets rather than Red Dye 40, and the dish’s bright green pancakes get their hue and 3-D flavor from green garlic tops that would otherwise go to waste.
That refinement of and attention to every detail, the insistence on making as much from scratch as possible, extends from the menu outward, to the custom-made glassware, fixtures and service pieces. Eventually, say Rush and Kajioka with a tinge of excitement, the bone marrow custard will come in its own custom-made ceramic bones, cast from real bones and nestled on specially made monkeypod bases.
The menu keeps its cards close to its chest, with deliberately pedestrian dish names. One is called “cake slice,” another “charred cabbage.” But the charred cabbage, a wedge of slightly blackened leaves served with a blanket of moringa powder, fronds of dill, a pool of green goddess emulsion and dots of buttermilk gel, caused my dining buddy to let out an involuntary—and happy—“Oh, my god,” when she took the first bite.
“Everything spice” financiers.
Another standout was the tako “a la plancha,” which pairs the Mediterranean approach to octopus—steam, then grill its tentacles whole—with an Asian-inflected sauce vierge of eggplant, ogo and herbs. On the tongue, it registered like a cross between steak and seafood: tender, meaty, substantial, rich with umami, and utterly satisfying. The addition of za‘atar, an ancient Levantine spice mix made of thyme, sumac and sesame, made this one my Oh, My God dish.
It’s that and the crab bucatini (a tube-shaped spaghetti), with chunky shreds of briny crab in a creamy lemon sauce and a tiny afterburst of jalapeño, that I keep thinking about. Precision-cut pillows of ricotta ravioli will please those with more conservative palates who want something good, but more mild—and beautiful to behold.
The short, imaginative list of vegetable sides was on point, from the addictive flash-fried Brussels sprout caesar served with salsa verde and shards of crisp green apple, to the spaghetti squash “Cacio e Pepe,” a playful veggie-centered take on the Italian pasta classic, flavored with fried sage leaves and creamy pecorino cheese. A side I was sad to see vanish on my second visit was the Bubble and Squeak Croquettes with smoked egg custard. Out with the old, in with the new.
The chicken-liver mousse.
Things changed even with dishes that stayed on the menu. The chicken-liver mousse was good but unremarkable on the first visit, but a hands-down favorite on the second: dotted with jewel-like dabs of honey vinegar and served with financiers (firm little cakes, usually made with almond) sprinkled with “everything spice.” On visit one, that was the dish I left behind. On visit two, we ended up ordering extra financiers to make sure to get every last bit of complex, livery mousse out of the bottom of the serving dish.
Therein lies my main quibble with Senia: consistency. Neither of the dishes I was able to try twice maintained its quality from visit to visit—although we’re talking about the difference between good and great. The charred cabbage blew my mind the first time around with the otherworldly beauty of its plating and its sheer, harmonious, improbable deliciousness. On my second visit, it was still delicious but a shade less subtle, and looked like a well-plated slice of cabbage. (Keep in mind, though, that iteration still made my friend take the Lord’s name in vain.)
Senia has filled out its back-of-house staff with relatively green folks who have been hired because they’ve got awesome potential and a great attitude—but, right now, they’ve only been training for a few weeks on an ever-changing menu.
That’s where Senia’s outsize pregame hype might hurt them: If you go in expecting one of the greatest meals of your life, especially while staff are getting up to speed on an ever-shifting array of dishes and techniques, your meal may well clear that very high bar—but it may not. The front-of-house staff, too, while clearly knowledgeable, are still working out some kinks. On visit two, Hungry Monday, we had to ask for napkins, and our kind young server, who was encyclopedic in her knowledge of food and wine, seemed a
With a tripartite model (main dining room, chef’s table, private room) and very high aspirations—to hew to Thomas Keller ideals about precision, creativity and constant change while maintaining neighborhood restaurant prices in Honolulu’s high-rent downtown—Kajioka and Rush have bitten off a lot. But the restless growth mindset of Senia means that these rough edges are likely to be gone in a few months’ time. As Rush says, “We’re here every day, and we care, and we’re always evolving, always changing and trying to do better than the previous day.”
SOMMELIER CHRIS RAMELB.
Senia’s more self-contained aspects are rock solid from the start: the wine program and the desserts. Sommelier Chris Ramelb seems like that super nice kid who tutored you in math in high school, but then he opens his mouth and it’s clear you are in the presence of a very friendly future master. “He’s a superstar on the brink,” Kajioka told me, days before Ramelb was awarded this year’s Johnston medal by the Sommelier Foundation, given to the top overall scorer in the nation on the Advanced Sommelier exam.
“The Kaji,” a spiced hard plantation tea with grilled pineapple spear, ginger and cardamom-infused vodka.
Another fabulous feature of Senia’s wine program is that you can try everything: Wine comes in generous 2-ounce or 5-ounce pours, with the beautifully curated and varied selection of 2-ounce rosés, whites and reds ranging from $3.85 to $8.50. That’s a boon both for light drinkers and for wine enthusiasts who want to try it all. On one visit, Ramelb refilled our water, too, which startled us. It shouldn’t, says Kajioka; at Senia, “Everyone does everything. We pour water at the counter. We clear plates. It’s a team.”
The desserts are created by Mimi Mendoza, who came from Michelin-starred Chez TJ in Mountain View, California, to Senia’s kitchen. Though I am that person who usually skips dessert when I eat out (Sugar? At the end of a complex meal? Why?), I would never do that at Senia. Like the cocktail list, the wine program and the side dishes, desserts at Senia are the whole package: concept, execution, result. Try the chocolate mousse pie, a half-round of contrasting flavors and textures (chocolate mousse, salted caramel dabs, housemade Butterfinger) served with a quenelle of insanely delicious popcorn ice cream and dusted with coconut snow. Kajioka’s favorite is the Meyer lemon chiffon cake, frosted with lemon curd and whipped white chocolate, and sprinkled with lemon syrup, crunchy black sesame candy and tiny, edible flower petals and microgreens. On the menu, it’s described laconically as “cake slice.” It is, but it’s so much more. It’s perfect.
Every few weeks, the divine “cake slice” may change its adornments.
One thing no one at Senia is doing, anywhere, is cutting corners. They’re not letting the ingredients do the work, resting on their laurels so they can go surfing, or relying on greatest hits that played well elsewhere. There’s a will to grow, to refine, to perfect and then move on that creates an interesting friction with Hawai‘i’s ideas about a neighborhood restaurant, where you know exactly what to expect, and they know what you like and how you like it because the menu hasn’t changed in 20 years.
Rush emphasizes that they’re not trying to challenge their diners, but to delight them: “We’re not trying to push boundaries or test people. We want people to be happy. We want to give them food that makes them happy. Ultimately we’ve given them what we like to eat—because that makes us happy.”
What I love about Senia is its individuality. Before I visited, I read on Eater that Kajioka’s ambition was to “create something that cannot be found anywhere else in the world,” and I rolled my eyes a little bit. But when I ate there, I got it. Senia is unique because it’s the product of many people with totally different origins, who share the same passions: to feed people delicious food, to find new ways to come together and to keep evolving.
“It’s a great time to be eating here right now,” says Kajioka, pointing out that the time when Hawai‘i was considered behind the culinary curve of New York and San Francisco is past: “Whatever you can get in those big cities, you can get it right here, with a more interesting point of view, to me. Andrew [Le’s food] next door (at the much-lauded The Pig & The Lady), is much different from our food. Everyone has their own point of view, what they grew up eating, their background. Anthony is from England. Katherine’s from L.A. Patrick’s from California and all over the place. Mimi’s from the Bay Area.”
Senia offers a different interpretation of a Hawai‘i sense of place, one that folds in visitors and kama‘āina and recent transplants alike, and celebrates the resulting intercultural collisions of taste and technique. There’s no pa‘i‘ai in sight, and no miso-marinated anything. They use non-native Hawai‘i ingredients and materials (strawberry guava, pineapple, monkeypod) with refreshing abandon. It feels millennial, exactly like the restaurant that would happen if someone grew up here, moved away, acquired mad skills and moved back home with a bunch of enthusiastic, highly trained international friends. At Senia, the Hawai‘i sense of place takes Hawai‘i as it is: evolving, multivalent, contemporary, with room for many different points of view.
So, forget the hype. Go because it’s some of the most interesting, engaging food in town. Go to be surprised, and to watch as a skilled and inventive team, generous in its intention and infectious in its enthusiasm, find its groove. And, in a little while, go because there will be ‘ahi burgers, says Kajioka, whose eyes light up when he says, “I always wanted to do an ‘ahi burger. Kind of like Tanioka’s fish patty, because I grew up eating it. I want to eat it every day. And, if we have it here, I can.”
When making reservations, call the restaurant directly if you want to dine at the chef’s counter. If not, have the barbecued beets, the Brussels sprout caesar, the chicken-liver mousse, the charred cabbage, the hot-smoked salmon, the crab bucatini, the tako a la plancha and the cake slice. For cocktails, if it’s sunny, order the Kaji (hard pineapple plantation tea with ginger, vanilla, cardamom-inflused vodka). If it’s chilly, go with the Melissa (Calvados, mead, green apple, rosemary).
Senia, 75 N. King St., 200-5412, restaurantsenia.com; Lunch: Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (spring); Dinner: Monday to Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; Chef’s Counter: Tuesday to Saturday, one seating at 6:30 p.m.