Chefs Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush create a unique “sense of plate” at their newly opened restaurant, Senia.
While admiring the view of a crisp-white, clean-lined restaurant, whose back wall is a moving mural of chefs at work in a kitchen that seamlessly adjoins the dining room, a square box filled with gray pebbles and bejeweled with Poke Crackers arrives at my table. My eyes shift from the handsome navy blue banquette seating and plant-adorned exposed brick wall to the bite-sized ‘ahi creation in front of me, resting on a puffy shrimp chip made black from squid ink. Th is presentation in this setting feels fantastically fresh, and when I bite into the seemingly exotic pupu, it tastes, almost surprisingly, like a super delicious batch of classic poke. In that first bite, with its familiar flavors presented in a compelling way, the essence of Senia instantly is revealed.
The new Chinatown restaurant is the whimsical joint venture of local boy Chris Kajioka, experienced culinary wizard and former executive chef of Vintage Cave, and British chef Anthony Rush, whose equally impressive resume includes heading the kitchen at London’s acclaimed Fera. Th e two met earlier in their careers in New York City while working at three-Michelin-starred Per Se by Thomas Keller, the same legendary restaurateur who introduced The French Laundry in Yountville, California (another spot where Rush formerly honed his skills). Kajioka and Rush kept in touch over the years, but it wasn’t until recently that the timing was right for their worlds to converge once again, when Kajioka was primed to open his own eatery in his home state, and Rush and his wife, Katherine Nomura, now general manager at Senia, were ready to leave London’s restaurant scene and move half way across the world to join forces with their old friend.
Kajioka and Rush may be from different backgrounds, but they both champion a traditional mindset in the kitchen—”We try not to overthink things,” says Kajioka—allowing them to see eye to eye in their collective roles as executive chefs. “I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years now, and there’s only a handful of people that you stay in touch with, that you really connect with and really respect, and Chris was one of those for me,” says Rush, who, at 16, left school in the Southwest of the U.K. to start cooking his way up the culinary ladder.
With any new restaurant, there always is the desire to classify its cuisine—some already have called Senia a “modern American” or “regional American” restaurant. But as I found out on my first visit to the eatery, Kajioka and Rush bring something refreshingly indefinable to the table. Rather than categorizing their dishes, or overall menu, for that matter, they simply aim to cook amazingly tasty food that they personally would want to eat, and that’s worth going out for.
“The menu has evolved and it always will—especially with Chris being local and me being from the U.K., it’s going to be food that you haven’t necessarily experienced before,” says Rush. “It’s exciting, so if it’s exciting for us, I hope it’s exciting for the guest, too.” One thing the chefs are clear about, however, is what their food is not.
“We don’t like the word fusion; we’re not trying to fuse different things on a plate. It’s just collaborative,” describes Rush.
“If we have a dish, it’s pretty true to that genre,” Kajioka quickly chimes in. “It’s not like we’re mixing the two things. But there’s no real label on what we’re doing; we’re just trying to make food that people really want to eat over and over.”
Though Senia is entering newfound terrain within Hawai’i’s dining landscape, it still is based on central ideas that easily can be discovered. Taking their cue from classically rooted cuisine, the chefs turn to quality and technique to execute their dishes not only brilliantly, but in a way that can be enjoyed convivially as well. The aforementioned Poke Crackers say it all, as they don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel—sesame oil, shoyu, rice vinegar and mirin ring a bell for taste buds—but they still provide a fresh take on the typical preparation with an impactful punch of yuzu, orange and lime citruses in a house-made ponzu gel.
“A lot of our food is very textural and plays high on acid because the whole theme of this restaurant is sharing, so we’re trying to compose the perfect bite for you, even if you’re sharing with four people,” explains Kajioka, when describing the poke.
Playing on that idea of sharing, the name Senia is inspired by the ancient Greek term for hospitality, “xenia,” furthering the restaurant’s goal to offer generosity and aloha to all its guests. It does this by creating a first-class dining experience that is not out of reach for a wide range of Hawai’i’s patrons. ~ e setting and menu, from the design scheme to the plating, may be re° ned in every way, but they are by no means stuffy. ” This is our interpretation of a neighborhood restaurant,” Kajioka continues.
Matching Senia’s warm spirit, the cuisine can be described, among other things, as personal. Many selections are like open windows into the chefs’ lives and careers, telling stories about the places that have shaped them through a collection of powerful flavors. Just as the Poke Cracker hints at Kajioka’s island roots, Chicken Liver Mousse pays homage to both of the chefs’ time in the Big Apple, when many mealtimes were spent chowing down chopped liver and onions spread over bagels from the Jewish deli on the corner. Senia’s expression of this offers a rich, smooth pate made dynamic with caramelized onions and paired with petite financiers (dense-yet-moist almond cakes). The plating is notable here as well, as the mousse is not only beautifully presented on a polished slab of wood and crowned with glossy beads of honey vinegar, but it is placed alongside a wooden spoon that makes it easy to spread it over the financiers lightly or in abundance. With nothing more or less needed on the plate of sorts, this presentation is as functional as it is stunning.
Popping a hot Bubble and Squeak Croquette into one’s mouth ensures an adventure for the senses and a taste of British dining culture. The crispy, panko-coated bacon-and-veggie nibbles are reminiscent of leftovers from a traditional Sunday roast, which are customarily fried up for breakfast the next morning, the mishmash of ingredients “bubbling and squeaking” away in the pan. To emulate a fried egg that would normally be placed on top of such a breakfast, the restaurant presents a smoked egg mousse that is ethereal in texture yet rustic in favor thanks to a touch of smoked paprika.
At Senia, guests may try something unexpected, such as silky Bone Marrow Custard paired with a luxurious stew-like Beef Cheek Marmalade, all to be savored with miniature sweet bread rolls. Or they can enjoy the familiarity of bucatini pasta oozing with comfort from the thickness and organic shape of the house-made pasta, which is topped with Ho Farms tomatoes and a feta-like dried and salted ricotta salata cheese. And patrons absolutely cannot go wrong with Hot-Smoked King Salmon, which is tender and flaky like butterfish, and caramelized from the kiss of the salamander-glazed brown sugar, butter, lemon and yuzu.
Senia’s finesse extends to all parts of the dining experience, including pastry chef Mimi Mendoza’s fine-tuned desserts that are perfectly in line with the main menu. Wine director Christopher Ramelb also lends his expertise for pairings, while the cocktail menu excites in much the same way as the food—picture a Pimm’s Cup interpretation with frozen-juice spheres that transform the flavor of the drink as they melt.
As Senia settles into its home, there will be more ways to soak up its goodness. Reserve a seat at the Chef’s Counter or at the adjacent Chef’s Table, right next to the kitchen to delight in an interactive multi-course tasting menu. Or pop in for a quick lunch suited to the downtown business crowd. Further down the line, the chefs may end up shaping a clear label for their cuisine after all, or perhaps it will remain in flux, but either way it will be fascinating to see how Kajioka and Rush continue to showcase their unique mix of local and newcomer’s perspectives within island cuisine.