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Smoking hot fusion

Kemuri's binchotan grill adds depth of flavors to artistic Japanese fare

Washugyu beef is cooked over the binchotan grill at Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City. Photo by Michelle Le.

Sometimes I wander into a restaurant that looks interesting without much knowledge of what might be in store. Kemuri Japanese Barú in Redwood City was one such place.

Kemuri is an izakaya, or a Japanese gastropub, with a binchotan grill -- a Japanese style of grilling. Inspired by Spanish tapas, it's fusion food taken to a different level with dishes that are meant to be shared. "Kemuri" means smoke in Japanese.

Opened in 2015, the restaurant's minimalist industrial décor is highlighted with Edison lighting, pipe-legged tables and tucked-away cove lighting that accents the high, textured walls and bare wood-top tables. Kemuri gives off a modern, urban vibe, adult but casual.

It's not a large space but the open floorplan and high ceiling gave it a spaciousness that feels relaxing and unconfined. The kitchen is semi-open and the bar is spotlighted to highlight its selection of sakes, shochu and Japanese whiskeys.

The waitstaff was efficient and patient in explaining what the dishes were and making recommendations. Some, but not all, plates were small, and servers advised which dishes best complemented others.

One evening we started with the seasonal duck prosciutto salad ($16) with Fuji apple, burrata, mixed greens, toasted nuts and a balsamic ponzu sauce. It was a gorgeous plate -- enough for two, tangy and earthy, and we ate every last morsel.

The lustrous octopus carpaccio ($15) came as silver dollar-sized medallions, lightly smoked and served with peppery, slightly bitter mizuna greens; daikon radish; Fuji apple; basil and a dressing made with shiso, an herb in the mint family.

Smoky char-grilled florets of cauliflower ($7) were smoky, sprinkled with pine nuts, scallions, olive oil and a light garlic sauce. Served on a black rectangular dish, the cauliflower was artistic, al dente and addictive.

Gobo karaage ($7), or deep-fried burdock root, was a new one for me. Burdock root is a vegetable native to northern Asia and Europe, though it is now grown in the U.S. The thistly plant has long brown-black roots, which have been used for centuries in holistic medicine. Kemuri served them like French fries with an herbed dipping sauce. Fibrous and chewy, they reminded me texturally of parsnips.

Kemuri specializes in the binchotan grill, which is only available at dinner. Binchotan is log-shaped oak charcoal that produces no flames and no smoke but intense heat. Special equipment is needed to burn the charcoal as well as a mastery of binchotan grilling.

Kemuri serves a grilled washugyu ($20), Kobe-style beef aged in miso with a cold poached egg for dipping on the side. In the mouth, the beef and egg dissolved into creaminess, rich and luxurious. Washugyu cattle are a crossbreed of the famous Japanese Black Wagyu and the finest American Black Angus, raised in Oregon.

My favorite binchotan grill dish was the pork kakuni, $15 for three pieces of pork belly that's braised, then quickly fried. The meat was nearly charred black but not burnt, caramelized, and served with a drizzle of sweet balsamic sauce. The meat was juicy with compressed flavors that expanded in the mouth -- silky, sumptuous and pleasing.

The hotate ($15), seared sashimi-grade scallops, came sliced thinly with a sweet and hot citrus wasabi butter sauce, wedges of lemon and scallions. The scallops were flown in from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island. Hotate scallops are raised in cold ocean waters 65 to 100 feet deep.

For dessert, the genmai cupcake ($8) was made with mochi rice -- a sticky, soft, slightly chewy, short-grained, glutinous rice. Served with sesame ice cream, it offered a completely different flavor profile than I expected. Texturally, it reminded me of cornbread; flavor-wise, it was a little on the nutty side -- more savory than a sweet dessert.

The green tea crème brûlée ($8) was served flan-like rather than in the traditional custard cup. Smooth and silky with delicate green tea flavors, it was a happy ending.

Kemuri prides itself in its selection of sakes, Japanese craft whiskeys and shochu. More popular in Japan than sake, shochu is higher in alcohol and is a distilled liquor whereas sake is fermented. Sake is made from rice, while shochu can be made from potatoes, barley or rice. Generally speaking, sake is more similar to wine and shochu more akin to vodka.

With or without libations, Kemuri's fare is worth seeking out. The binchotan grill is intriguing, all dishes are high quality with complex flavors, presentations are artistic and the décor appealingly contemporary.

Kemuri Japanese Barú

2616 Broadway St, Redwood City


Hours: Lunch: Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday, 5:30-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5-11 p.m.; Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m. Closed Monday.

Reservations: yes

Credit cards: yes

Parking: street parking

Alcohol: full bar

Happy hour: no

Corkage: $20

Children: yes

Takeout: no

Outdoor dining: no

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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