Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Xenia: The ancient Greek concept of hospitality, generosity and courtesy shown to those from near and afar.
Senia: The newest and most anticipated restaurant in the 50th’s dining scene.
As I mentioned in an earlier column, the opening of Senia was likely the most anticipated restaurant event in recent Hawai‘i history, in large part because many fine diners here in the 50th had previously sampled co-owner/Chef Chris Kajioka’s cuisine at either Roy’s, or Aziza or at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco. Or, they might have shelled out a hefty $300 for a Chef Kajioka meal at Vintage Cave at Ala Moana Center, or enjoyed his fare at a pop-up in one of several local restaurants.
When Kajioka left Vintage Cave in 2014, rumors began circulating that he was planning to open his own restaurant in Hawai‘i, so the “anticipation” really began well over two years ago. The first rumor I heard was that he was teaming up with Chef Mourad Lahlou of Aziza. Subsequent talk had Kajioka launching his new venture on the continent. Finally, in mid-2015, it was announced that he was partnering with Chef Anthony Rush, a fellow Per Se alum, and Rush’s wife, Katherine Nomura-Rush. Per Se is New York’s version of California’s The French Laundry.
It took another year and a half before the two chefs finally opened their restaurant, Senia, to the public last Dec. 14.
Senia, the Restaurant
Senia is located on North King Street in the heart of Honolulu’s Chinatown district, between The Pig and The Lady and the gastropub, Smith & Kings. I never have any luck finding street parking, so I just park in the municipal lot behind the building. Senia’s décor is very simple, with one large light fixture almost resembling a Chihuly glasswork and a few potted succulents that grace the large brick wall. Most of the tables are two- and four-tops and you select your dishes from the ala carte menu.
Or, you can request seating at the “Chef’s Table,” which will give you a view of what’s happening inside the kitchen. The “Chef’s Table” seats between four and eight people who dine on a preset omakase menu consisting of 12 to 14 courses.
We visited Senia in mid-January, about a month after it opened. I selected seating in the main dining area, as seats at the counter weren’t available at the time. That wasn’t a bad thing, as all of the dishes were new to us. We enjoyed a couple of cocktails — very good cocktails, mind you — that paired well with our starters.
The cocktails reminded us of the cocktail program at Aziza:
• The Kaji: a “hard” plantation tea spiced with grilled pineapple, ginger, vanilla and cardamom; and
• The Lydie: a softened Negroni with gin, bitter spirits, elderflower and grapefruit.
We then progressed to our appetizers, which included:
• Chicken Liver Mousse with Honey Vinegar and Financiers (mini almond cakes).
I pride myself on making a great chicken liver pate, but this version was a league above with a creamy sweetness balanced by the sweet and sour honey vinegar “droplets.”
• Bone Marrow Custard with Beef Cheek Marmalade and Hawaiian Sweet Rolls.
After sampling this dish, I “borrowed” the idea (and later admitted it to Chef Kajioka) and created my own oxtail marmalade. Although it seemed like a small serving, the rich flavor of unctuous beef cheek and rich bone marrow more than sated any appetite.
• Malfadine with Wild Boar Ragu and Rosemary Bread Crumbs.
This was not your usual pasta course, as the ragu had the savory Moroccan/middle-eastern flavors of cinnamon and coriander with perfectly cooked pasta.
• Mushroom and Kale Lasagna with OK Farms Egg and Fontina Cream.
Yes, a runny egg yolk front and center gets me
every time . . .
• Brussel Sprout “Caesar” with Green Apple and Salsa Verde.
We also selected one of the large plates:
• Herb Dough Baked Snapper with Clam Bouillabaisse and Saffron Aioli.
We had this dish boxed up to take home, as we were quite full, but the saffron-infused bouillabaisse was a meal in itself.
Just about a month later, we booked the “Chef’s Table” for four to sample the 12-course meal, which was reminiscent to Vintage Cave and definitely approaching The French Laundry (although about $90 less). Again, we started with a round of cocktails:
• The Bully: Plymouth gin, maraschino, violet, lime and lychee; and
• The Melissa: Calvados, mead, green apple and rosemary.
The “Chef’s Table”
Kusshi Oyster • Smoked Salmon • Wagyu Beef
This trio was served on a wooden board. While I normally focus all of my attention on fresh, raw oysters, the stars on this board were the succulent smoked salmon and the rich Wagyu beef.
Opening-day versions of this dish used venison tartare, but our version was tuna tartare in smoky dashi (broth), covered with heart of palm. It was served with a scoop of Osetra caviar. This dish made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven.
Chef Rush explained that back in his native England, hay is commonly used for cooking and smoking. This dish, which was an upscale version of a British comfort food, featured lightly smoked ikura on hay-infused custard with a light dusting of hay ash.
At Vintage Cave, Chef Kajioka served caviar on smoked brioche, which was then topped with venison tartare. (I hear it’s still part of the “secret” menu in Vintage Cave’s main dining area.) Another idea I’m “borrowing.”
Foie Gras Tart
The coffee crust really accentuated the richness of the foie gras while the banana blossom and bananas with a touch of acidity balanced the richness of the tart.
OK Farm Egg
Chef Rush displayed Senia’s truffle “storage,” a ceramic container modeled like a huge black truffle. Of course, beneath the shaved black truffles lay a glorious runny egg yolk.
This was a good dish. However, when placed between truffled eggs and the exquisite melt-in-the-mouth chicken, it paled in comparison.
Trust me, the chicken dish was a food epiphany. I’m not sure how the chefs managed to cook it so tender and succulent, but the morsel of leg meat literally melted on my palate like a fatty slice of otoro (Bluefin tuna belly). Chef Kajioka said he simply sous vide (place the chicken or meat in a vacuum-sealed bag and cooked it in a water bath) the chicken and then roasted it. But I’ve never had chicken meat melt on my palate like that dish did. Can I have a whole bird to go?
Pastry chef Mimi Mendoza visited our table and explained her dessert, which was an airy Japanese cheesecake perfectly complemented with meringue and dollops of sauces.
Finally, Chef Rush presented the Septagon, a seven-sided wooden box, which, when unrolled, revealed six mignardises (bite-sized desserts) of chocolate; firm, fruit-based jellies and baked goods. He said he had the boxes created well before the menu was actually developed, knowing it was how he wanted to present the final course.
So did the two Senia dining experiences live up to the anticipation and expectations? Most definitely! Our tab in the main dining area, minus alcohol, was a little over $100 per person, including tax and tip. But that was for six courses, and it turned out to be way too much food for two people. The “Chef’s Table” runs $185 per person, plus tax and tip, prepaid, when you book your reservations on the mobile app Resy.
Compare that to The French Laundry in California, which charges $310 (tip included) per person for 13 courses. Locally, La Mer in the Halekulani charges $195 per person for eight courses, and Vintage Cave charges $300 per person for 12 courses.
So, these special “Chef’s meals” are well worth the additional outlay for special occasions. And the professionals must agree, as Senia was one of only two Hawai‘i restaurants recently nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award for best new restaurant.
75 North King St.
Open Monday through Saturday, 5:30-10 p.m.
Ryan Tatsumoto is a clinical pharmacist by day. In his off-hours, however, he and his wife enjoy seeking out perfect marriages of food and wine. Ryan is a certified sommelier and a certified specialist of wine. The Windward O‘ahu resident also writes a column for San Francisco’s Nichi Bei Weekly called “The Gochiso Gourmet.”