It is hard to replace a legendary owner like Jerry Barakat at a restaurant. His experience and expertise in building world-class culinary institutions in Little Rock are second to none. This was a huge obstacle that faced owners Dr. Meraj Siddiqui and Dr. Ahmad Rafi when they purchased Kemuri from Barakat late last year.
Siddiqui and Rafi had spent their career in the medical field and came into ownership without the lifetime of experience Barakat had. I’ve learned one of the best qualities of good leadership is quickly acknowledging what you do not know and bringing in talent that builds in those areas.
Fortunately, they also had a strong, successful team going into the restaurant, and they were able to leave the vast majority of the staff in place. To support the existing staff they brought in long-time restauranteur Dave Bisceglia to manage the restaurant and chef Gilbert Alaquinez as the executive chef, joining chef Haidar who will continue to oversee some of the best sushi in Little Rock.
It is the addition of Alaquinez that I believe is the most notable. We have oddly never written a list of top 10 chefs in Little Rock, but if we did Alaquinez would be high on the list. We fell in love with his talent and wealth of knowledge while still a sous chef at Forty-Two at the Clinton Center. He later took over the executive role there where he continued to develop a surprising lunch and special event menu, then later a fantastic dinner menu when the space changed to 42 Bar and Table. Alaquinez a rare breed, classicly French trained with a strong Southwest and Hispanic culinary background and an extremely good pastry chef to boot.
Talking with Alaquinez he says they really expect no major menu changes right away, and when they do come it will be revisiting the original concept of Kemuri.
“Kemuri is successful right now, they have a great menu that I really respect. I plan to do a few specials to try new things, but the core menu will stay the same for a bit,” Alaquinez says. “Eventually we want to get back to much heavier use of the Robata style that Kemuri began with. With that, we will focus on small plate robata dishes, along with a strong seafood lineup while still retaining a lot of things that people already love here. Haidar will continue to have full control over the sushi menu and we want to allow him to be as creative as possible.”
The robata style cooking is traditional to Japanese cuisine and involves cooking food over hot coals at varying speeds. The style is even reflected in the name Kemuri name, which means smoke. Over the years Kemuri has never abandoned the robata style, but they have placed a greater focus on many of their entrees, poke dishes and cold plates for the non-sushi side of the menu.
Alaquinez says some changes may happen later on with Kemuri, but the main focus of the restaurant that has made it successful will always remain the same. They are interested in taking a cautious approach to change, leaning on the great framework Barakat built, rather than changing for the sake of change.
It is refreshing for someone like myself who loves Kemuri. The versatility of the restaurant is an anomaly. It is a great business lunch with sliders or poke bowls, a cheap date by splitting a couple of sushi rolls, or a nice night out by ordering a few robata small plates, entrees, and dessert. Glad to see even with the change, it has all the potential to still be a great spot in the city.