Kemuri, the new upscale Japanese restaurant from Little Rock restauranteur Jerry Barakat is now open at 2601 Kavanaugh (formerly the home of Ferneau and Rocket 21). I attended a soft opening last night along with Steve Shuler of the Little Rock Foodcast, and we both left intrigued by what the place will bring to the Little Rock dining scene, especially in a neighborhood known for its excellent restaurants.
First things first: I don’t envy anyone who has to work one of these soft openings. The trial run for a restaurant is a constant battle of training and skill vs. Murphy’s Law. Case in point: we walked in to a main dining area where the air conditioner had recently given up the ghost — something that nobody could control and forced the staff to put on a brave face and soldier on, which they did with admirable aplomb. I’m not sure if the air problems stretched back into the kitchen, but if it did, it certainly didn’t slow down the steady stream of food that hit our table.
The first thing you see as you step into Kemuri is a long, attractive sushi bar with around a dozen seats. Behind the bar, chefs are in a constant flurry of activity, slicing fish, packing rice, and creating the elaborate sushi rolls that are to be a mainstay of the menu. The roll we tried, the Crazy Lover, was an attractive creation of tempura shrimp, crabstick, avocado, and salmon, all wrapped in rice and seaweed. Now for me, I prefer my sushi a lot simpler than this — and with a lot fewer cooked ingredients, but for you folks out there who like these busy rolls with a lot going on, you will be very pleased with things like the Crazy Lover. The fish is fresh, and the rolls are crafted with skill. I was even happier with a dish of yellowtail sashimi accented by thin-sliced jalapeno — the buttery fish was of high quality and proved that Kemuri will be doing the simpler stuff right, too.
In addition to the sushi, Kemuri will also feature “robata” — charcoal grilled food. Our table’s grilled dish was a couple of gigantic prawns that really had us smiling. Cooked until just done, these shrimp carried a nice taste of the grill without being tough and chewy. Shrimp are tough to grill because they are so delicate, so it’s good to see that Kemuri knows how to get the job done well.
The standout dish of the night was a Panang Curry that had our table raving. Creamy coconut milk and spices bathed a bowl of fresh vegetables, creating a compelling and complex study in flavors and textures. Vegetarian friends: you will find a true friend with this curry — it’s the rare meatless dish that truly eats like a main course, and I predict could become one of the most popular dishes on the menu.
As with the air conditioning, not everything was quite up to speed at Kemuri. The rice served with our curry was overcooked to the point of tooth-endangering crunchiness (our waiter offered to bring more), and some of the serving staff seemed confused when asked about the constituent parts of certain dishes — one server, when asked about the rolls on the plate said “Oh, it’s just sushi” without any further explanation. That’s the sort of stuff that comes with time and experience, though, and can certainly be forgiven on a pre-opening night. Overall, service was friendly and the kitchen seems to know their work quite well. There seems to be something for a variety of tastes on the menu as well, which may very well be the thing that makes Kemuri a staple of Little Rock dining.