While interviewing Senia co-chef Chris Kajioka about his new project Bar Māze last month, I learned even bigger news: “I’m opening a French bistro with Mourad in the Café Miró space.” Mourad is Mourad Lahlou, chef-owner of his eponymous restaurant in San Francisco, and half of the city’s It Couple, with San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Mathilde Froustey. I think I just looked at Kajioka, dumfounded. Because that. Is. So. Huge.
It is huge for Honolulu diners, who right now have no French bistro or brasserie options. The closest thing was the long-shuttered Brasserie Du Vin and the more recently closed Grondin. (OK, maybe Nico’s Upstairs, but I havenʻt been there yet.) But we have been waiting for an excellent bistro entrecôte, with crisp fries soaking up a nice sauce au poivre vert for a long time. And priced so I can eat it on the regular.
So to have Kajioka, whose cooking roots are French and increasingly influenced by Japanese cuisine, pair up with his longtime culinary brother Lahlou, whose Moroccan heritage includes a lot of Frenchiness (colonialism isnʻt all bad when it comes to food!), is a milestone food moment for Honolulu. And it is happening in Ka‘imuki, already home to Ed Kenney’s Town, Mud Hen Water and Kaimuki Superette; Kevin Hanney’s 12th Ave Grill; Hanney and Lee Anne Wong’s Koko Head Café, and granddaddy Russell Siu’s 3660 on the Rise; along with a slew of neighborhood favorites like Maguro-ya, Himalayan Kitchen and EARL sandwich shop.
Miro 2.0 comes at a price—it means the loss of chef Shigeru Kobayashi, who has been quietly preparing his insanely affordable three- and four-course tasting menus nightly for 22 years. Ready to retire to Japan, he has been looking for the right person(s) to take over his establishment. He found people he could trust in Kajioka and his Sanzoku Hospitality Group partners—Tom Park, Justin Park (no relation)—and Lahlou. Kobayashi will be cooking until Oct. 20. The restaurant will retain its name and reopen under its new owners in February.
Inspired by the ongoing bistro and brasserie renaissance in Paris that started about 15 years ago, and with a new emphasis on gilets-jaune-budget-friendliness at places like Lucas Blanchy’s Le Mordant and Manon Fleury’s Le Mermoz, Kajioka wants this to be an everyday place.
“In Paris now it’s super creative, with lots of vegetables and priced for everybody,” says Kajioka. “The lease allows us to be affordable. Miro will be super interesting and special—with that chef-inspired touch—but also super affordable. It’s a huge passion project.”
For less affordable food from Kajioka and Lahlou, you will be heading to Ward Village, where they are working on a collaborative project. It is also where Kajioka is now the chef for the entire Howard Hughes Corp. Ward Village redevelopment. Tasked with overseeing the neighborhood’s dining landscape, Kajioka is exploring national options to add culinary diversity—and excitement—to Ward Village. He aims to “bring credibility as well as create a better mix with local establishments.”
“I am lucky I was picked. Howard Hughes is trying to build a community there,” says Kajioka. “And once you bring people in, that really starts with good food.”
In the meantime, Senia continues to hum along. He and partners Anthony Rush and Katherine Nomura have developed tight teams in the kitchen and the front of the house—dinners are better than ever even when they aren’t there during service.
“When you open another project, you leave the mother ship,” says Kajioka, “but without the mother ship nothing else happens. So we’re there every day still. We duck out for meetings.
We’ve built a good team—it’s the strongest we’ve ever had, full of people who are talented and care, we’re lucky. The restaurant is in a really good place, we’re hitting our stride. We’ve been asked to do a few things nationally that I can’t divulge yet. Everyone in New York and San Francisco is talking about Senia. That’s what we always wanted.”
And he still is able to carve out a little time to be a father to his son Cade. “Seeing him grow up so fast…I was looking at pictures from when he started preschool to now, he’s a little man now. I don’t miss his baseball games. I’m working this hard for him, I don’t want to neglect him.”
He attributes his ability to find a semblance of that 21st-century holy grail of work-life balance to his wife Jen (“She’s super supportive”) and his partners. “They make it all possible.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Chris Kajioka