To be honest, Little Rock was spoiled this year. Excellent existing restaurants in the city further cemented their position in the city’s culinary scene, and it’s now hard to imagine the capital city without South on Main, Natchez, Table 28 and others. Legacy restaurants also performed exceptionally well, with the likes of Brave New Restaurant, Faded Rose, The Butcher Shop and many others churning out quality food on a nightly basis. But 2014 will likely be remembered for a host of new eateries that garnered instant acclaim and respect. It made picking just one a supremely difficult task, but in the end, I could find no better than Kemuri to name best new restaurant of 2014.
Jerry Barakat and his team of richly talented chefs had to know they would be highly scrutinized moving in to the Ice House in Hillcrest. Before them, Ferneau had created its namesake’s own legend there, and while Rocket 21 was no darling of the critics, it was still highly popular and busy on a nightly basis. And while we’ve learned that Yellow Rocket Concepts considered opening a Local Lime there when Rocket 21 departed, it was ultimately Barakat who won the chance to continue the Ice House’s legacy.
What he and his team have done in just a few months is truly special. Kemuri is not just a good restaurant for Arkansas. It’s a good restaurant, period. Barakat wisely took advantage of one of his biggest strengths: Ocean’s sushi chef Alex Guzman, whose elaborate and vibrantly styled sushi creations had already created a cult following in West Little Rock. While Guzman is still at Ocean’s, he was tasked with creating the menu and training the chefs for Kemuri’s impressive sushi menu. It is safe to say that Guzman is achieving his task with aplomb. The sushi coming out of Kemuri is every bit as good as Ocean’s. Brilliant rolls, like the Crazy Monkey (which is kissed with fire tableside), the Kiss Me and the Crazy Lover spark the imagination with elegant preparation and tremendous balance. Indeed, while many sushi rolls made in other restaurants lack focus, every roll at Kemuri showcases the quality of the primary ingredients. And Guzman’s team has much more in store for the sushi lovers in Little Rock. The nigiri is easily the best in the city right now, with a tamago (egg omelet) that can’t be beat and raw preparations with deft touches (like appropriately using warm rice for certain fish) that are uncommon in this city.
Sushi is only part of the story at Kemuri. Where the restaurant truly separates itself is in its robata. Executive chef Brian Kearns and chef Greg Wallis no doubt had some learning to do with this ancient northern Japanese technique, which infuses smoke flavor into the food over a charcoal flame (Kemuri is Japanese for “smoke”). After tasting it, it’s surprising that more Japanese restaurants in the southern United States aren’t doing robata. The smoke is an instantly familiar component, connecting southern taste buds with other foreign flavors that might be more intimidating otherwise. Kearns and Wallis have clearly studied well, because the robata coming out of Kemuri’s kitchen is a real treat. In particular, the vegetarian options here are excellent, but every robata dish I’ve tried has been solid.
As for the rest of the menu, traditional Japanese flavors are infused in unique and appealing ways. The Panang Curry is an absolute star, paying homage to a relatively new trend in Japanese cuisine with a balance of heat and sweetness (again, the vegetarian option is outstanding). Japanese sensibilities are also found in the Miso-Glazed Black Cod, which features a fried lotus root, and the Drunken Noodles, which brings a sweet soy sauce and spicy chili peppers together effortlessly.
Perhaps Kemuri’s biggest success was the way it brought brand new flavors and techniques to Little Rock diners. Of all the new restaurants in 2014, none added more to the culinary scene of our city nor did it so successfully. Barakat and his team have brought something to Little Rock that everybody should experience. It’s an authentic look at Japanese cuisine that feels both exotic and accessible while staying truly excellent. It’s a combination that makes Kemuri the Little Rock Foodcast’s best new restaurant for 2014.
Runner up: Mylo Coffee Co.
Second runner up: One Eleven at the Capital
Third runner up: The Pizzeria at Terry’s Finer Foods
Note: The window for the Little Rock Foodcast’s “Best of 2014” period is Dec. 15, 2013-Dec. 14, 2014.
Other Little Rock Foodcast “Best of 2014” honors:
Best restaurateur – Tomas Böhm (The Pantry, The Pantry Crest)
Best chef – Scott Rains, Table 28
Best restaurant – Friday