Making the Grade: Kemuri, Oishi, Gus’s

With a steady stream of new restaurants opening their doors to the Little Rock dining public, there seems to always be something new to be excited about. You wonder, sometimes, which will establishments remain popular and maintain the attention they received when first opening their doors…and which will fade out with time. But several of my eating experiences recently have made me genuinely enthused about the way Arkansas eating is headed. And so, in this new feature, I’ll be bringing you short, consise reviews of some of the more intriguing and remarkable dining adventures I’ve had recently around town. Who makes the grade? Who needs to rethink their strategy? I’ll let you know…

Kemuri: The recently-opened, modern Japanese concept brought to us by restarateur, Jerry Barakat, and Ocean’s/Arthur’s chef, Brian Kearns, is probably on most food-lovers “must-try” list at the moment. I recently had a chance to join a large group at the sleek new Hillcrest restaurant and was fortunate enough to sample a fairly sizable chunk of the menu. In short, I left very impressed. Every corner of this menu feels well thought-out and carefully planned. The decor is contemprary but comfortable, the service was polished. The food impressed everyone at the table. The blend of smaller plates and robata items with the larger entrees made for a great way to dine–we were all able to share a bit of each, sample around, and everyone found something they enjoyed. Some of the standout dishes for the night included the creamy, coconut-milk filled Panang curry with white rice and Thai basal, a plate full of baby back ribs in ponzu BBQ sauce, and beef tenderloin with tempura fried onions, bok choy, and purple potatoes. And you lovers of raw fish…their yellowfish with jalapeño, sriracha, and yuzu soy may have been the best bite of the night. Grade: A-

Panang curry from Oishi
Panang curry from Oishi



Oishi Hibachi + Thai Cuisine: Thai options in Little Rock are shockingly slim, but lately a few places are starting to introduce this city to the wonderful options available through Thai cooking. At this particular address, the Tju family have struggled over the last few years to find a restaurant that is able to resonate with diners. RJ Tao missed the mark for most, Cafe 5501 lacked identity and never managed to make a name for itself. To be honest, I did not have much hope for whatever they were planning on bringing next. But with Oishi, the group have split the menu into a formidable hibachi grill and decent number of classic Thai dishes. The Thai options were just too intriguing to pass up. I sampled another Panang curry here (it happens to be my favorite Thai dish)…and loved it. The broth was thick, creamy, chock-full of chicken and vegetables. Diners should exercise caution while ordering their “level of spice,” however. I only asked for a Level 1 (on a scale of 1-5), and I was surprised how much heat the dish had. My dining companion was also pleased with her choice of soup and spring rolls, though a few of our dishes were a bit less impressive. Still, I’m excited to get back for more, and I’d encourage any other longing for decent Thai to keep this place in mind. Grade: B+

Gus’s Fried Chicken (West Little Rock): My waistline trembled in terror when it was first announced that the latest location of Gus’s famous fried chicken would be making setting up shop less than 60 seconds (yes…I timed it) from my home. And as expected, since its opening, there has been many-a-night in which the lazy yet hungry part of me has proclaimed, “Screw it…I’m picking up some fried chicken.” Indeed, at this moment, I beleive Gus’s is the only restaurant I have stored in my phone’s contact list. Now, I love their chicken. When it’s prepared fresh, there’s nothing more satisfying than the spicy, bright orange crunch of Gus’s chicken. But I’ve had a few instances in which I’ve been served dry chicken with a chewy (rather than crunchy) crust. Their sides have also been a bit underwhelming in my experience. And once I was given someone else’s take-out order by mistake and did not realize it until I had gotten home. I am now forced to always check my items before I leave their restaurant…something I expect with Taco Bell, but not with the great Gus’s. But I will continue to patronize this poultry palace because it still satisfies more often than not. Here’s hoping they can iron out any wrinkles they’ve been having. Grade: B-

Tenderloin from Kemuri
Tenderloin from Kemuri

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Making the Grade: Kemuri, Oishi, Gus’s