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Why Senia Marks a New Chapter In Honolulu Dining

Two Per Se alums debut a neighborhood restaurant with fine dining bona fides

All photos by Kathy YL Chan

At Senia, the goal is simple. "We want to make people happy," says chef and co-owner Chris Kajioka of the upcoming Honolulu restaurant, which he operates with fellow chef and owner Anthony Rush. From their kitchen in the city’s Chinatown, the chef duo is awaiting on the final permits, but even before the first diners trickle in and critics weigh in, Kajioka and Rush are setting the bar high, aiming to "create something that cannot be found anywhere else in the world," Kajioka says. As a result, it’s is one of Eater's most anticipated openings of the year.

The name Senia is a play on the word xenia, the ancient Greek concept of hospitality. Hospitality is the focus here and there are no egos — all involved with the project will tell you that Senia, at the core, is a collaboration of minds. Kajioka (originally from Hawaii) and Rush (originally from the UK) met while working together at Per Se nearly a decade ago. Fast-forward to 2016, and both are close friends living in the heart of Honolulu. Together, along with GM Katherine Nomura (also from Per Se, and now Rush's wife), they've created a restaurant that is novel for the region.

Honolulu's dining scene has evolved significantly in the past few years, although accessible fine dining has been a trickier niche in this market: there are the causal spots and there are the occasion restaurants. A look at the 38 essential Honolulu restaurants and 10 hottest new restaurants in town show establishments primarily on either ends of the spectrum. Senia hopes to meet the growing demand for something in between. “Senia is a neighborhood restaurant created through the lens of fine dining,” says Kajioka.

Hospitality starts with the space itself. The building which houses Senia was built in 1886, and the restaurant design retains a great deal of its original character. There are two standout features. First, no walls separate the dining area (which seats 50) from the kitchen. It's a single, inclusive space. Second, the kitchen and dining area are roughly the same size — a luxury for the cooks and a stunning visual element for diners. In an effort to keep the space inclusive, check averages will be around $30 for lunch and $60 for dinner.

Charred cabbage caesar: kombu, green goddess, buttermilk

This menu isn’t offering “traditional” Hawaiian food. "It should only be here in Hawaii, a reflection of our melting pot of cultures,” says Kajioka. “It is our unique take on Modern American [cuisine].” Keep an eye out for dishes like the charred cabbage Caesar (pictured above), bone marrow with Hawaiian sweet bread, and za'atar grilled tako (octopus). Pastry chef Mimi Mendoza (formerly of Chez TJ in Mountain View, CA) will be turning out sophisticated desserts like Meyer lemon chiffon cakes and chocolate mousse laced with vanilla bean chantilly.

Like many other big fall openings nationwide, Senia is in many ways a two-for-one: Not only is it a neighborhood restaurant, it's a tasting menu venue. At the seven-seat chef's counter, Kajioka and Rush will offer multi-course dinners. There's also a single table tucked right behind the counter, where the pair will offer a chef's table experience.

While diner comfort is paramount, every detail at Senia is meant to evoke a distinct Hawaii sense of place. The chef’s counter is custom-made from monkeypod by Dae Son of Wood HI, a local woodworking company. The illuminated glass sculpture suspended from the ceiling was created by Jonathan Swanz, a professor at University of Hawaii. The handcrafted wood cabinetry comes from fellow University of Hawaii professor Nick Hunsinger. The energy of Hawaii radiates at every turn. The aim, says Kajioka, is “to represent the melting pot of cultures in Hawaii while still being a neighborhood restaurant in Honolulu’s Chinatown.”

Greek yogurt parfait: tangelo carrot sorbet, gingerbread crumble, tangerine meringue, lime curd, carrot powder

Kathy YL Chan splits her time between her native Hawaii and NYC. Follow her on Instagram at @kathyylchan.
Editor: Hillary Dixler