Nine-month-old Senia is arguably the most closely watched restaurant opening in the history of Honolulu dining. National publications tracked its progress for nearly a year and a half before the place welcomed its first diners; magazines dispatched editors to Hawai‘i solely to bask in the cooking of its pedigreed chefs, Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush. Their first signature dish, a reason in and of itself to dine at Senia, is not newfangled lomi salmon or a high-minded rejiggering of loco moco. It is the humble, bell-shaped Caraflex cabbage, for which Kajioka and Rush act as kingmakers, enrobing and anointing the vegetable before throwing it a coronation.
After scorching the leaves to tease out their natural sweetness, Kajioka and Rush give the cabbage a mossy overlay of dill, Parmesan, and a dressing made of shio kombu (a Japanese preparation of kelp boiled and seasoned with soy sauce and mirin before being dried into sheets). Then they blanket it with powdered, emerald-bright moringa leaf, a plant touted as a superfood. The bedecked Caraflex lolls on a plate near a pool of Green Goddess dressing and dots of buttermilk gelled into a semisolid state using agar. It’s a high-low masterpiece, and a joy to eat: tangy, herbal, creamy, crisp, and loamy, with every bite slightly different from the last.
The complexity and precision of the dish — an appetizer that can forever change the way a person feels about cabbage — trumpet-blares the talents of Kajioka and Rush, Senia’s co-chefs and owners. Before Senia, they spent their careers preparing meticulous tasting menus and alchemizing obscure, luxury ingredients; the pair met while working on the line at Thomas Keller’s Per Se.
Now, they are navigating complex straits in their new business: Senia serves both an approachable a la carte menu and an extravagant tasting menu in the same room. The restaurant aims to please both tourists and locals, using culinary approaches honed on the mainland (and Europe) while still honoring Hawai‘i’s sprawling food cultures and the fine dining traditions built in Honolulu since the 1990s. Those are some tangled aspirations to squeeze into a 50-seat space.
Senia is a watershed restaurant for both its nationally up-to-the-minute menu and because of the sterling resumes of its principles. Kajioka, a Honolulu native, graduated from the Culinary Institute of America last decade, and then he focused on cooking at some of the country’s highest-ticket luminaries: Masa’s and Parallel 37 in the Ritz-Carlton, both in San Francisco; The Willows Inn on Lummi Island in Washington state. He was working on the line at Per Se in 2007 when he met Rush, then a sous-chef at the restaurant.
Before he embarked on Senia, Kajioka ran an audacious restaurant in Honolulu called Vintage Cave. A Japanese developer named Takeshi Sekiguchi had tasked Kajioka with brainstorming a fine-dining fantasyland; Vintage Cave’s 32-seat space reportedly cost $20 million, including custom bricks, ceramic plates that cost $500 a pop, and a collection of Picassos. Kajioka served $295-per-person tasting menus for a year before leaving in 2014 to pursue his own project.
Rush was looking to open his own restaurant around the same time that Kajioka left Vintage Cave. Rush, who is British, had returned to England after his stint in Per Se to work at two of the United Kingdom’s most famous restaurants: Fera at Claridge’s in London and Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray. He had previously visited Hawai‘i with his wife, Katherine Nomura, another Per Se alum whose front-of-house resume also includes Blue Hill at Stone Barns. In 2015, the couple came to Honolulu to stay, joining forces with Kajioka. The trio found their new professional home in a brick-lined, 1,900-square-foot space in Chinatown, in a building constructed in the late 1800s.
If you love food, if you want to understand Honolulu dining at just this moment in its evolution, you should unquestionably book at table at Senia. That said: If you’re a visitor coming to Honolulu looking to revel in the local food, Senia would make for a complicated first stop, like listening to Solange’s A Seat at the Table without ever hearing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I suggest getting to know Hawaiian and local cuisine through some other restaurants first.
Immerse yourself with a spread of kālua pig, poi, the rich stew that is squid lū‘au, and fried butterfish collar at mom-and-pop mainstays Helena’s Hawaiian Food; swing by Ahi Assassins or another market for mind-meltingly fresh poke by the pound; order a plate lunch of gravy-drenched meats, two scoops of rice, and a macaroni salad at Rainbow Drive-In or Zippy’s. Dishes like these fill the menus in independent Honolulu restaurants where locals dine, and they throw the culinary history of the islands, a product of successive waves of immigrant labor during the 19th and 20th centuries, into stark relief. Eat at Senia once you know the way steamed taro leaves resist and give way against the teeth, once you’ve drawn your own conclusions about poi’s slippery earthiness.
Some would also make an argument for also getting to know Senia’s more immediate precursors, the high-end “Pacific Rim” cuisine that emerged from their minds and kitchens of chefs like Roy Yamaguchi, Alan Wong, and George Mavrothalassitis. The grab-bag approach to East-West fusion they helped create — the ‘ahi tuna sculptures, the wasabi mashed potatoes — devolved from craze to cliché by the end of the 1990s, but in Honolulu they’ve built an invaluable legacy in the form of relationships with Hawaiian farms, which started growing specialty fruits and vegetables (no small thing when the state imports two-thirds of its produce) for the islands’ most ambitious chefs, and they inspired renewed appreciation for delicacies like fresh hearts of palm and taro.
Honestly, though, my recent dining experiences at Honolulu’s Pacific Rim stalwarts were marred by sloppy execution and some baroque, obsoletely busy flavor combinations. I’m most vividly recalling a salad at Alan Wong that hurled lobster, poke pâté, foie gras, and braised duck on an unfortunate collision course.
To relish the cooking of a next-generation locavore chef who elegantly unites tradition and modernization, go to the restaurants of O‘ahu-born chef Ed Kenney. He opened Town in 2005 in the residential Kaimukī neighborhood, emphasizing locally and organically grown foods on a menu that merges Italian, Hawaiian, and contemporary American flavors: ‘ahi tartare over risotto cake with balsamic vinegar; gnocchi with sunchokes, capers, and lemon; swordfish and breadfruit sauced in chermoula.
Town is a favorite among Honolulu food lovers I know, though I’m obsessed with Kenney’s second restaurant, Mud Hen Water. It’s the restaurant in Hawai‘i that, to me, most elegantly bridges the choppy waters between local tradition and innovation. Order the dense, silky pa‘i‘ai (the pounded, undiluted taro here served as cakes), the baked banana (a riff on a steakhouse stuffed potato, rich with bacon and coconut and curry butter, so clever I grinned through every bite), and opah cooked slowly while buried in coals.
All this sounds like a lot of preliminary research before a meal at Honolulu’s hottest destination, I know. But my own multi-visit dinners taught me that Senia is a restaurant that, for out-of-towners, is best experienced with generous helpings of culinary context.
The most obvious project for the Senia team would have been an ambitious chef’s counter. But in planning their own restaurant, Kajioka, Rush, and Nomura understood that a business centered solely on extravagant tasting menus might struggle to find a consistent clientele. They wanted Senia, in its essence, to be a neighborhood restaurant. It required splitting the restaurant into two different halves, a bustling a la carte dining room and a theatrical chef’s counter that faces directly into the kitchen.
The pair also decided to eschew a specific Hawai‘i focus, and concentrate instead, as Kajioka told Eater in 2016, on “Modern American” cuisine. On the a la carte menu, most of what’s on offer follows the playbook of modern American restaurants in its global eclecticism: small plates that feature beets or smoked salmon or bone marrow or raw fish, several pastas, sharing platters heaped with pork belly or a massive steak. This is familiar territory for many major American cities, but this specific mix of styles is fresh for Honolulu. In some cases, especially with ho-hum pastas like shrimp ravioli with sweet corn, the lineup can come off as mundane to outsiders.
The menu items most evocative of Hawai‘i are the snacks: spoonfuls of poke nestled onto rice crackers dyed black from squid ink, or kālua-style pork paired with cabbage, fried into croquettes, and served with a variation on the local condiment chili pepper water. Fresh hearts of palm, grown on the Big Island, add crunch to hamachi tataki. Fluffy, pull-apart sweet rolls are the light-hearted delivery vehicles for the intense flavors of bone marrow custard and beef cheek marmalade. (Even these fall in step with the mainland’s culinary vanguard: Witness peas and bone marrow custard with frizzled shallots at Trois Mec in Los Angeles, or roasted bone marrow with beef cheek marmalade at Chicago’s Au Cheval.)
The kitchen rewards groups with large-format creations, designed to feed three or four people, that convey the sort of avant-garde fusion inspired by David Chang’s ethos. A half-duck, boneless and confit, was the $70 special one night, zinged with pickled cherries and varnished in a honey sauce tingling with berbere, the pungent Ethiopian spice blend. Its richness came on strong, but the contrasts and the whirling stray notes of garlic, ginger, and fenugreek kept me coming back. A $65, user-friendly platter of glossy pork belly arrived on a beautiful platter made from monkeypod wood, spread with pickles, a crock of harissa paste, pristine lettuce leaves, and green pancakes for DIY wraps.
So you can pluck out some explicit Hawaiian allusions on Senia’s menu if you’re on the lookout, but it’s not a restaurant intent on performing its Hawai‘i-ness. For visitors, that might be confusing. For locals, it’s part of the charm. It’s a big reason why Senia feels so exciting. In a place like Hawai‘i, whose economy hinges on tourism, there’s an implicit tension present in its very existence: Who is this restaurant for? In a city where so many restaurants, especially at the high end, tailor themselves primarily for the tourist crowd, a restaurant dedicated to the of-the-moment pleasures of urban American dining is shockingly refreshing. And any inconsistencies are clearly growing pains, because the tasting menu, the more challenging métier, proves without a doubt these two chefs know exactly what they are doing.
Four nights a week, Wednesday through Sunday, Kajioka and Rush serve a $185-per-person tasting menu at the 12-seat chefs’ counter. The dozen or so courses careen through initial bites such as citrus-cured kampachi with compressed cucumber cradled in a rice cracker before trotting out the luxuries: foie gras (in terrine form, molded into a gorgeous honeycomb pattern), truffles (showered over tartare of Maui-raised venison heaped atop brioche), caviar paired with hearts of palm, and elaborate presentations like fish Wellington.
Of the two chefs, Rush is the showman. He promenaded the length of the counter to exhibit his Wellington workmanship before baking: a filleted opah butterflied and veneered with chard leaves and papery sheets of ham, and then carefully spooled, jelly roll-style, into a roulade and finally enveloped in dough gilded with saffron. He’d stamped the dough with symbols resembling pineapples — an emblem of hospitality and a wink to the restaurant’s name, a riff on the word xenia, the Greek concept of kindness and friendship to travelers.
While the Wellington transformed in the oven, a more minimalist version of the a la carte charred cabbage course arrived, and then a terrific pasta course: casunziei, raviolis from Northeastern Italy filled with beets, which color the dough a deep fuchsia. They lulled in brown butter and poppy seed (traditional) and came crowned with crisped quinoa, pickled amaranth, and tarragon (heretical, but also triumphant). This was a happy astonishment.
The Wellington was impeccable, a ridiculous feat of technique. Each thick, hut-shaped slice of roulade modeled the deft spiral of fish, with the green and pink edges of chard and ham appearing as soft stains on a paint palette. Bouillabaisse butter sauce magnified the flavors hauntingly. It was, hands down, the best thing I ate in a week spent devouring Hawai‘i.
Soon came dessert. Eater Young Gun Mimi Mendoza exactingly mirrored how Kajioka and Rush approach their two menus. In the main dining room, a peach crostata perfumed with cardamom ended a meal with homey reassurance. Her tasting menu contributions coaxed out the more elegant aspect of her skills. First was her take on a creamsicle: tangerine and yogurt parfait dolloped with liliko‘i-lime curd, dusted with carrot powder, and, for crunch, an almond crumble.
Then Mendoza’s crowning glory came in a box — a seven-sided box made by local woodworker Nick Hunsinger. We were instructed to open the septagon on its side, which unfurled to reveal seven compartments, each filled with a sweet: things like lychee-rose pate de fruit, and a strawberry-pistachio bonbon, and a textbook crisp-custardy canelé. Rush said later that the inspiration for the box’s design came while watching Thomas Heatherwick's folding bridge over London’s Grand Union canal from the window of his flat. The lines between craftsmanship and artistry, in cooking or in woodworking, can be membrane-thin.
But the supreme specialness of the tasting menu’s conclusion also reinforced the disparity in my experiences. The a la carte meal had some soaring highs (that cabbage, whoa) and some bumping landings; typical, in many ways, of a neighborhood restaurant. The tasting menu universally dazzled.
I get it: The gap is intentional. The main dining room is meant to be casual, convivial, familial. The tasting menu is ultra-refined, an occasion, an event. I wish the food in the dining room had been less uneven, though the importance of Senia to Honolulu is obvious. The combined star power of Kajioka and Rush draw international attention. Their awareness of right-this-minute trends brings national relevancy to the city’s dining scene.
The tasting menu contends alongside the most outstanding exemplars I’ve had in the United States. Mastering the art of the neighborhood restaurant takes a different set of skills. But a visiting food critic reporting on his imbalanced meals won’t diminish the zeitgeist around this place. There are restaurants that open — I’m thinking of Husk in Charleston, and Zahav in Philadelphia, and even Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York — that change the culinary ecosystems of their cities. Senia is one of them.
Senia: 75 North King Street, Honolulu, HI, (808) 200-5412, restaurantsenia.com. Dinner (a la carte) Monday-Saturday, 5:30-9-30 p.m. Dinner tasting menu, one seating Wednesday-Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Lunch Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.- 2 p.m.
Bill Addison is Eater’s roving critic and restaurant editor. Photos by Bill Addison unless otherwise noted.
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