First Look: Senia Opens in Chinatown

Celebrated chef Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush partner to cook up new twists with simple flavors in Chinatown.


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Senia cake

The cake slice.
Photos: Lavonne Leong

 

To say there’s been a lot of hype over Senia, which opened this week in Downtown Honolulu next to The Pig & The Lady, is an understatement. The New York Times dedicated ink to Senia 16 months ago, and people have not stopped talking since. Senia’s owner-chef partnership of Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush hosted preview tastings in New York and San Francisco and tantalizingly showcased their menu development on social media. It’s one of Eater’s most anticipated restaurant openings of the year.

 

Whole articles have been devoted to Senia’s name (a play on xenia, the Greek word for an almost-sacred obligation to hospitality), the restaurant’s artisan-crafted fixtures, the impressive culinary pedigrees of its owners and staff, and the many bureaucratic delays that meant that a restaurant slated to begin serving in the spring of 2016 finally threw its doors open in December.

 

Kajioka and Rush’s goals for Senia are both simple and precise. “Our core mission is to make people happy,” says Rush, who adds that when diners stand up to go, “we want them to be thinking about when they’ll make their next reservation!”

 

Now, at long last, Senia is here. And it’s exactly what you’d hope for from two young, talented chefs who grew up on opposite sides of the planet (Kajioka in Hawai‘i and Rush in Britain), met in the kitchen of Thomas Keller’s legendary New York restaurant Per Se, and together decided to open an eatery with a Hawai‘i sense of place at which regular people could eat on a regular basis. (Senia says its average dinner, with dessert, will run about $60. Two of us ate everything we wanted, excluding drinks, for $90.)

 

charred cabbage

The charred cabbage.

 

Conceived as a place with a creative spirit, exacting standards, an affordable price and an accessible product, 50-seater Senia seeks to be many things to many people. It has the main dining room, where we ate; a small private room upstairs; and the chef’s counter and table, which faces the open kitchen and will host multi-course chef’s tasting menus starting on Jan. 4.

 

The menu feels like it’s been crafted by two very different individuals, distinct in culture and experience but held together by shared devotion to technique. Cross-cultural flavor conversations are begun; shio kombu plays with buttermilk, and ogo and tako end up hanging out with zaatar, a Middle Eastern spice mix of thyme, sesame and sumac, and liking it.

 

In the main dining area, Senia keeps prices reasonable by taking humble ingredients and elevating them. Case in point: the charred cabbage, which sounds like the least interesting thing on the menu, is a must-order. It arrives as a craggy, cliff-like wedge dusted with moringa powder and forested with fronds of dill, with a shio kombu vinaigrette, a pool of green goddess emulsion and dots of buttermilk gel—one of those Rene Redzepi-style platings that look like it would be fun to explore on foot if you were half an inch high.

 

It was out of this world. But none of the ingredients were out of the ordinary. You can find moringa greens by the armload at the Kam Swap Meet every Saturday.

 

Smoked salmon

Hot smoked king salmon.

 

The same thing happened with the hot smoked king salmon, and that’s when I realized that the point of that kind of plating is not only to create a painterly food landscape, but to wander through it with your tongue. The dish unfolds in time, because every bite is different. The salmon, smoked fresh in-house with applewood chips, came beautifully plated with dabs of date purée, charred cauliflower, yuzu gel, fragments of toasted almond, curly pea shoots, and creamy lemon confit. I asked Kajioka why he had put salmon and cauliflower together. “It’s one of those things that just works,” he said.

 

He was right: The salmon, with a salty-smoked exterior and a soft, mild interior, just worked with the charred, yielding crunch of cauliflower, and everything else on the plate. Every bite was surprising, and there’s nothing better I like than to be surprised, in a good way, by what I’m eating.

 

Not all the dishes are so obviously technical. The bucatini and the bubble and squeak croquettes are good examples. The spherical croquettes, a snacking version of the British comfort-food classic, wraps mashed potato, cabbage, bacon and root vegetables together in a light, crunchy crust. Served with a smoked egg custard for dipping, it wasn’t the most ambitious dish I had all night, but it was the most perfectly executed. Similarly, a plateful of house-made bucatini (pasta shaped like hollow spaghetti) looks ordinary, but surprises with a rustic, fresh Ho Farms tomato sauce infused with saffron and a spike of chili.

 

Croquettes

The BUBBLE AND SQUEAK CROQUETTES With smoked egg custard.

 

In many ways, vegetables get to be the stars of this menu. The spaghetti squash cacio e pepe is a playful take on the Italian pasta classic, with fried sage leaves serving as a dusky, crunchy counterpoint to creamy pecorino cheese and black pepper on a curly pile of spaghetti squash, cooked al dente and served on a plate of its own rind.

 

I didn’t run into any dishes to avoid. But. The chicken liver mousse, dabbed with honey vinegar and served with “everything spice” financiers (I tasted caraway, sesame) looks pretty, and the flavors are a thoughtful combination. It’s fine if you like chicken liver toast, which I do, but the financiers, little cakes usually made with almond, were soft and the mousse even softer. Kajioka might say I spent too long taking pictures of the food and let the financiers lose their crunch. Perhaps.

 

And then there’s the poke cracker. I think there’s a law somewhere that says you can’t have a modern Hawai‘i restaurant without poke somewhere—and there it was, a scoop of good ‘ahi diced fine, seasoned well and dabbed with ponzu gel and avocado, served on an airy house-made squid ink cracker that felt like a tribute to Chinese shrimp chips. It was an intelligent, tasty contribution to the already crowded poke genre that might be another restaurant’s signature dish, but was one of the lesser lights here.

 

Chris Ramelb, who at 28 is one of the most accomplished sommeliers in the state, is on hand to recommend a wine pairing. The cocktail list is short and sweet, with drinks invented by Rush and his wife, Senia co-owner and GM Katherine Nomura, while waiting for the restaurant to open, and named after people they love.

 

Chung Chow drink
PHOTO: OLIVIER KONING

We tried the Chung Chow, a tribute to a favorite British summer drink, Pimm’s Cup and (stay with me) boba tea. This one arrives as a gorgeous glass full of tiny spheres of fruit and herbal ice (strawberry, orange, lemon, mint, cucumber), served with a boba straw, over which Ramelb pours Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur and ginger ale. As the meal goes on and the ice get smaller, you get shards of boozy fruit and herbs that took my British dining companion right back to the summer garden parties of Oxford.

 

For dessert, I had a slice of cake from pastry chef Mimi Mendoza. It’s just called “cake slice” on the menu. Don’t be fooled; this one comes as a multilayered chiffon frosted with Meyer lemon curd and whipped white chocolate, drenched in Meyer lemon syrup and decorated with crisp black sesame candy, tiny, edible flower petals and baby cilantro from Ululoa Farms. I don’t really like cake. Or cilantro. But I would come back to Senia just for this.

 

If this were a fine-dining restaurant in its prime, there would be a few quibbles. Someone in the kitchen had a heavy-ish hand with the salt, making bite No. 1 of a couple of dishes more delicious than bite No. 10. The fruity slush at the bottom of the Chung Chow was difficult to access with the boba straw, which is a shame for a drink that cost $20. But this was the day after opening. And the bill, excluding alcohol, for two people to eat really well was about $90.

 

“In the end, it’s a neighborhood restaurant in Chinatown,” Kajioka told us. “We’re not trying to be fine dining. We’re trying to make food that’s as delicious as possible, and do it how we know to do it.”

 

There you have it. The restaurant’s long gestation shows in the thought and detail behind every dish. I can’t remember the last time I had such an engaging, surprising, delicious meal for under $50 per person. That it’s a five-minute walk from our offices rather than a five-hour plane ride is a very good thing.

 

Did we leave happy, thinking about when we would return? You bet. We can’t wait to go back, to see how Senia’s story unfolds. Stay tuned.

 

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