Kemuri has been open for just over a year, but in that short time, it’s become one of Little Rock’s best dining experiences. Jerry Barakat took his outstanding sushi menu and pedigree from Ocean’s at Arthur’s and expanded upon it, introducing Japanese robata-style grilling and slickly designed Asian-themed entrees to the Hillcrest neighborhood. If there’s been any criticism I’ve had of Kemuri, it’s that, until recently, the restaurant was only open for dinner. But this summer saw the introduction of Sunday brunch service, and just a few weeks ago, Kemuri began serving lunch, as well. Keeping the same quality food and service at a reduced price, Kemuri hasn’t missed a beat with its new lunch menu.
UPSCALE, NOT STUFFY
Kemuri is at once modern and grounded, with flashy features like a lighted sushi bar and transparent wine storage that are set off by warmer hardwood floors and familiar music playing overhead. Kemuri manages these juxtapositions effortlessly, and the effect is one of comfortable luxury that never feels pretentious. It doesn’t hurt that the service is both friendly and exact. On my second visit to Kemuri for lunch, our waiter not only remembered that I had been once before but also what I had ordered, and our comments on the meal. That’s a remarkable level of service, something that you can find at all of Barakat’s restaurants. You can’t put a price tag on that feeling.
I didn’t get any previews before checking out Kemuri’s lunch menu, so I was both surprised and pleased to see a host of new items introduced just for this new service. The full sushi menu is still available, as are some excellent dinner entrees, such as the panang curry and many of the robata dishes. But I wanted to try the new lunch fare, starting with the Korean classic bibimbap. The bowl of coconut rice layered with kimchee, chicken, mushrooms, a fried egg, squash and carrots simply sang. Fresh, vibrant flavors burst forward over and over again in new and interesting waves, carried by a subtle chili sauce and the yolk of that egg. At $10, it’s a home run. Equally excellent is the unagi rice bowl, featuring avocado, carrots, cucumber and real eel meat. As foreign and exciting as the dish was, it still presents a host of familiar flavors that make this new dish easily accessible.
Colder months are coming, and I can see myself soon huddled over a bowl of Kemuri’s outstanding chicken miso ramen. This is a longtime dinner entree that I hadn’t tried yet, and the thick broth and corn, nori and slow-cooked eggs are pure comfort food. I was warmed to my core. A friend opted for the new shrimp tacos that were quite good, with sweet yuzu aioli and citrus salsa giving the dish almost a South American feel. If there’s any dish I quibbled with, it was the char siu pork steamed buns. The meat was excellent, as were the sweet potatoes, but the buns were a bit too dense when they should have been light and airy. Still, it’s a small complaint on an otherwise tremendous experience. For more on the dishes I tried, head over to The Dish.
LITTLE ROCK SUSHI MASTERS
Odds are, many people will go to Kemuri for the sushi menu, which is a perfect way to spend any meal. That’s because Kemuri’s sushi staff is trained by Alex Guzman, sushi chef at Ocean’s in west Little Rock. The two restaurants offer the best sushi in the city. Simple rolls such as the California and spicy tuna are so much more than afterthoughts here, with real crab and high-grade fish stuffed inside. The quality of the seafood is excellent; don’t hesitate to order the raw nigiri or sashimi preparations. And the house special rolls are made with both flair and an eye for flavor. I was particularly wowed by the Hawaiian roll, which manages to corral sweet mango and coconut shrimp and keep them from tasting like dessert. Sushi in Arkansas really doesn’t get much better.
When one of Little Rock’s best restaurants starts serving lunch, you expect great things. Kemuri absolutely delivers, introducing new menu items that are just as capable as its tremendous dinner plates. The top-notch sushi and impeccable customer service are still intact. And the prices are lower than dinner! Really, there’s not much more to say. Kemuri at lunch is wonderful. You should go. Today.
This is the lunch standout for me, with coconut rice setting the background for a staggering array of flavors and textures. Eat each component separately, or mix it all together — I still bet you’ll be impressed. Getting this much great food at just $10 is quite a bargain, too. (ss)
LUNCH TRIO ($14)
It’s a high price until you realize that the three sushi rolls here are as fresh as you can make them. Both the blue crab and the California rolls skip the crabstick in favor of real, sweet crab meat. But it’s the Hawaiian roll, with its fried shrimp and fresh mango that really sets this plate apart. Order it as your meal or as an appetizer. It works well either way. (ss)
UNAGI RICE BOWL ($12)
If you’ve never tried eel before, this is the plate you should get for your first taste. The meat is sweet and tender, helped along nicely by cucumber, avocado and carrots in a deep, sweet eel sauce. Don’t be fooled by its small size, either; this lunch dish is filling. (ss)
CHAR SIU PORK ($10)
It’s two large steamed buns filled with slow-cooked pork that gets a quick sear for texture before getting tossed in a miso barbecue glaze. The buns need to be a little lighter, but the pork is really good, and the sweet potato fries are some of the best I’ve tried. (ss)
IN A NUTSHELL
Kemuri’s standout food and service are now available at lunch, with sushi, robata, salads, steamed buns and a slew of excellent Asian-style entrees.
Location: 2601 Kavanaugh Blvd., Little Rock
Phone: (501) 660-4100
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., 4:30-10:30 p.m. Friday; 4:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday
Prices: $6–$16 for lunch, $4–$32 for dinner
Kid-friendly: Maybe find a babysitter
Dress: Business casual recommended
Takes reservations: Yes