Jerry Barakat has had far more hits than misses in his Little Rock restaurant career. In fact, anything called a miss for Barakat all these years has soon morphed into something trendier and popular. Barakat — and he’s far from the only local restaurateur to do this — has often co-opted a national idea and presented it with his own flare without the exorbitant franchising fee: For instance, he beat the renowned Dallas-based chain P.F. Chang’s to the market with his own Jasmine’s, and added a Cheesecake Factory-like Sesame’s in the same building in West Little Rock. When those had run their course, he eventually altered course and hit the market longing for a high-dollar steak place with Arthur’s, a Morton’s-type knockoff that has built a strong following in that same contemporary building off Chenal Parkway.
But in everything Barakat has tried, it’s been well west of downtown, well beyond the reaches of the midtown diners — until now. The newest of Barakat’s eating empire is Kemuri, which anchors the far east end of an eclectic row of shops and restaurants (some outstanding ones, in fact) on Kavanaugh Boulevard in Hillcrest.
There are Japanese-inspired restaurants in Little Rock, but nothing quite like Kemuri.
“Hillcrest needed this,” said one of our dining companions after a recent visit that was nearly five-star in every aspect. We figured the rest of Little Rock could learn to love it, too.
The place, only opened a few weeks in the Ice House Revival where Ferneau and then Frank Fletcher’s Rocket Twenty-One operated, smelled fantastic the minute we walked through the door. The decor throughout was breathtaking, an inviting place easily befitting a large metropolis, with wine bottles laid horizontally up and down sections of the walls. The service was close to exceptional; we may have had one or two quibbles with food description, but not much else.
The food itself was spectacular on all levels, from the specially made sushi rolls by a team of three experts to soups to Asian-inspired and daring entrees conjured up by Chef Greg Wallis.
We made a couple of recent trips to Kemuri, one for a dinner with two companions and then a return trip just to check out the cozy if slightly smallish bar in the back of the restaurant.
We started with two massive, complicated sushi rolls — the Crazy Monkey ($15) and the Hawaiian ($12). One of our diners has an eating disorder known as “No Mayo Please” and turned her nose up to the Crazy Monkey with its aioli. Her loss; it hit every taste level we could imagine with crab, avocado and a kick from the aioli drizzle. She was talked into the Hawaiian because it supposedly had no mayo, or “sauce,” as she puts it, but nevertheless it came with a sweet yellow drizzle that put her off. Again, too bad, as this diner devoured the mango and pineapple heavy roll.
Said sushi lover was already too stuffed for a full entree, but Kemuri offered something we had not seen in these parts: robata, described as a traditional style of grilling originating in the northern islands of Japan, where fishermen would slowly cook their catch over a communal hearth.
These are small-plate offerings that could easily be called appetizers but can also serve as a meal for the lighter eater. What this robata style does to barbecue ribs is enough to put regular BBQ joints out of business. The melt-in-your-mouth Baby Back Ribs ($7) with the accompanying ponzu sauce is a must-have on your first visit (if not subsequent ones) to Kemuri. Two sweet, tender, half-dollar sized scallops ($11) also got the robata treatment with wasabi shiso and were perfectly cooked. Lamb chop, beef and pork tenderloin, salmon, shrimp and more off the robata intrigue us for future stops.
We tried nothing from the cold plates portion of the menu, though one of our party had already ventured in for the Kemuri Salmon Tacos ($15), which she described as phenomenally good. Ahi tuna is also available for the tacos, and cold plates also include the buttery white tuna sashimi ($15), salads and more.
Don’t want seafood? Don’t worry, Kemuri takes care of the steak or bird lover in its entrees. Friends of ours were raving about the roasted game hen with Shoyu onion sauce, shiitake mushrooms and asparagus. Our waiter was pushing the Drunken Noodles ($23 with shrimp, $18 with chicken). We bucked the trend and went with Panang Curry with Shrimp ($21) and the Wild Salmon ($22) served in a ginger lobster broth with mushrooms, edamame and baby spinach, and jasmine rice on the side. The salmon with the broth was deliriously good all around; the curry dish proved too spicy for the lady diners, and probably needed more rice, but this male loved the hot pop that blended nicely with the Thai basil, colorful bell peppers and coconut curry.
Bartender Mark was a welcome host late one night, things slow throughout Little Rock, and had at his disposal a rare bottle of Jameson Special Reserve Irish Whiskey. A small batch bottled once a year by the famed distiller, whiskey drinkers are unlikely to find it anywhere else in the immediate area.
Our new bartender pal was a big fan of the Miso Glazed Black Cod, which our waiter had also suggested a few days earlier. A sip of Jameson will turn any poor sap into a big spender ($10 for the drink, $29 for the cod) and so we went. The cod, accompanied by baby bok choy and a crispy lotus root that’s like a potato chip, is marinade in the miso and the marinated is reduced for a sauce on the plating. The flaky cod was of the highest quality we’ve encountered, and lived up to its price tag. The cod, as well as a coconut curry chicken soup, went well with the Jameson, in fact.
You’re unlike to come away from Kemuri cheaply, as our bill for three diners one night (including two glasses of premium wine each), nearly hit $200. But Kemuri is the kind of place you check out when traveling to Dallas or other big cities. Only, you don’t have to travel but a few blocks now if you’re a Hillcrest resident.
2601 Kavanaugh Blvd.
Though entrees can be large and also hit the pocketbook, Kemuri offers smaller grilled plates under its “Robata” menu that, when paired with sushi, will satisfy any appetite. Lunch is coming in about two weeks, we’re told.
5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Full bar. CC