My gripe about Hawaii’s dining scene is that it doesn’t change very much. So I stayed away for nearly three years and now that I’m in town, I’m playing catch up. First up is one of the island’s most highly touted new openings: Senia.
On a quiet block on King Street (next door to the popular Pig & the Lady) in downtown, Senia picks up many of the traits of the hipster casual yet fine dining scene I’m familiar with in San Francisco. That includes veiled windows obscuring what’s inside (check), modern yet comfortable dining room (check), open kitchen with a cadre of cooks (check) and a ticketed tasting menu (double check).
The six-month-old restaurant was highly anticipated because of its two chef owners, Chris Kajioka and Anthony Rush, who met and worked together at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. They bring that refined touch with experimental twists in presentation to their dishes at their restaurant that isn’t exactly Hawaiian-focused as much as it’s that undefined “modern American.”
The 50-seat restaurant offers a changing ala carte menu, but if you reserve a spot at the 12-seat chef’s counter, you can enjoy a 12-course tasting menu for $185 (paid in advanced with your reservations). That’s what I ended up doing when I booked my seat two months in advance, and joining me was my friend Margaret.
The tasting menu comes with a $65 wine pairing option, but Margaret and I both decided to just stick with a cocktail to start. We both got the “Kaji” ($18), described as a spiced “hard” plantation tea made with cardamom infused vodka, black tea, fresh pineapple juice ginger, vanilla and served with a grilled pineapple.
For our tasting menu, it is the typical pattern of a few small bites, or amuse bouches, to start, followed by pasta, fish, and beef dishes, and ending with a dessert and mignardise. But when you sit down, the night’s menu is kept very close to the chefs’ chest as the printed menu only lists the main ingredient of each course (i.e., kusshi oyster, Maui venison, white asparagus, foie gras, etc.).
The starters got our mouth salivating with fresh flavors like the kusshi oyster with yuzu and a perfectly prepared sliver of hamachi. The creative factor comes with a white bowl with an ash dip on top, uncovering a smoked salmon twirl inside.
I found many of the dishes to be bold in flavor, like the Maui venison served on a toast with a savory sauce similar to a balsamic vinaigrette or jam and topped with truffle shavings. But a few subtle dishes would offset this, such as the monchong fish course with a light broth.
Margaret felt some of the dishes were too salty, and didn’t like the texture of the foie gras torchon, which was cold and served encrusted with nuts and fruits and a sweet sauce that made you think you were eating dessert. An orecchiette dish also seemed simple with a white cream sauce with corn, although we both agreed the pasta was perfectly al dente.
Chef Rush took care of serving us and explained the different ingredients of each course, with many of the ingredients locally foraged. I found the level of service and quality of the food on par with some of the Bay Area’s best tasting menus, and made me feel a bit of home in the islands.
Dessert was a simple dish of cream sandwiched between thin wafers and served with a huckleberry sauce. But the presentation of the mignardise (or parting sweets) was a wow factor as the dessert chefs came with septagon-shaped boxes placed in front of us, and slowly unrolled it to unveil a treat in each pocket. The restaurant is kind enough to bag any of the treats you can’t finish, from the lychee gel to mini cakes or cookies, but I tried them all on the spot and enjoyed the variety and uniqueness of each piece.
It was hard to photograph the septagon, so to truly get the experience, you should check out the video post I added to Instagram.
The last bite
While the innovation level may not be off-the-wall, the quality of the tasting menu at Senia can stand up to many of the highly recognized restaurants on the mainland. Senia is helping to up the game for the dining scene in Hawaii, and it’s definitely helping to reverse the perception of Oahu’s slow-changing dining scene.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Senia, 75 N. King St., Honolulu. PH: 808.200.5412. Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. (prix fixe); dinner (ala carte) Monday through Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.; and dinner (tasting menu), Wednesday through Saturday with one seating at 6:30 p.m. Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. restaurantsenia.com
Bonus: See every dish on the tasting menu in this video I put together.
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