Last fall, new restaurant Senia was so hotly anticipated that The New York Times’ T Magazine published a blurb (by acclaimed novelist Hanya Yanagihara no less) in August 2016—almost five months before chef-business partners Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush served their first customers—already proclaiming it was “Redefining Hawaiian Fine Dining.”
But the landlord and construction issues that kept the restaurant’s Chinatown doors shuttered turned out to be a blessing. Senia’s team had the time (and investor funding) to fine-tune the menu and to assemble and train the crack kitchen and service staff, resulting in the restaurant opening fully formed—as if a woman gave birth to a brilliant, well-adjusted teenager.
Even the structure of the restaurant is different. The kitchen is a 50-50 collaboration between O‘ahu-born ascendant star Kajioka and his British import buddy, Rush, who helmed Michelin-starred Fera in London’s venerable Claridge’s hotel. Running the front of the room like a gracious host (and concocting the cocktails) is Rush’s wife, Katherine Nomura. And the place brings to Honolulu a two-in-one restaurant concept, with the dining room serving a regular menu, and an eight-seat chef’s counter serving a tasting menu. (Because the chef’s counter is sold out so far in advance, this review is of the dining room only.)
There is so much to say about Senia—from the thoughtful storytelling dishes to the smart DIY interiors. This independent project is the realization of a dream Kajioka has had since he was 4 years old, when his mother gave him a pizzelle-maker (pizzelle means Italian waffle cookie).
Much has been written about Kajioka’s culinary journey, from Culinary Institute of America graduate to opening chef of Vintage Cave Honolulu, with stops at places like Thomas Keller’s Per Se, where he met Rush and Nomura.
From the white T-shirts on the Danny Meyer-standard servers to the textured wall of sugarcane plant-fiber panels that Rush installed, every detail at Senia has been thought of. They turned to O‘ahu-based artisans for design accents, such as the Sputnik-like light fixture by University of Hawai‘i glass-blowing instructor Jonathan Swanz and the monkeypod chef’s counter crafted by woodworker Dae Son.
In the dining room, Kajioka has kept his promise of a restaurant where “people can afford to go weekly.” Divided into Snacks, Plates, Shared and Sides categories, the brief menu manages to cover many bases. Vegetarians can make a fabulous meal by ordering all the sides—just $50 for two. The chicken liver mousse snack—smooth as an ice skating rink in a micro bowl and dotted with golden balls of spiced honey cooked-down and firmed up with agar and served with fluffy, gluten-free financiers made of almond flour—is a mere $7. I’d be happy just ordering two of those—for $3 less than a bowl of oxtail soup at Zippy’s!
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