January is a reliable dead zone in the hospitality industry. With diners resolving to get back on track after gorging their way through the holiday season, many bars and restaurants remain stubbornly quiet for the first few weeks of the new year.
This axiom seemed to hold as I walked down Redwood City's Broadway Street on a dreary winter evening last month, passing over a dozen nearly empty eateries. Yet when I pulled open the door to my assigned destination -- Kemuri Barú, a 5-year-old Japanese tapas eatery -- I discovered a packed restaurant that somehow managed to skip the holiday hangover and keep the party going (on a Tuesday night, no less).
Kemuri's design is austere and industrial. Tables with chunky wood tops and legs made from metal plumbing fixtures are spaced tightly throughout the dining room. The taupe textured walls are largely unadorned. A string of backlit bottles behind the bar near the entrance offers the sole hint of color. A thin film of smoke from the open kitchen creates a moody haze.
If this sounds overly dark and brooding, it's not. Kemuri is modeled after Japan's izakayas, gastropubs that serve drinks and light snacks. The communal style of shared plates encourages socializing, ensuring that the room gets a lively lift from an energetic, mostly younger crowd. (And, yes, that means that the decibel reading heads skyward during peak hours.)
The restaurant offers its share of trendy cocktails, like the sultry hickory-smoked Manhattan ($14), but it's Kemuri's Japanese-influenced libations that rise to the top. Notable entries from co-owner Katsu Tozawa's list include the Tokyo mule ($12), which injects yuzu, a tart and aromatic Asian citrus fruit, into the standard vodka and ginger beer recipe, and the ume gimlet ($12), a refreshing blend of gin, lime, Japanese plum and sugar cane syrup.
I was particularly fond of the shisho wasabi margarita ($12), which spiked traditional margarita ingredients -- Julio Blanco tequila, agave and lime juice -- with wasabi paste and powder. Served in a wasabi salt-rimmed glass, the drink had a pleasant, mild kick -- not the bracing burn I anticipated -- and scored points for originality.
Beer lovers won't be disappointed by a rotating lineup that staggers standbys like Asahi and Sapporo with less familiar brews like Harajuku Girl. There's also an impressive array of sake -- some quite rare -- and Japanese whiskies.
Kemuri co-owner and head chef Takeo Moriyama is influenced by both traditional Japanese and contemporary California cooking. There is much to discover on the extensive small plates menu that blends these complementary styles.
During my inaugural visit, my guests and I were deep in conversation when we absent-mindedly took our initial bites of the first small plate to arrive: corn tempura with seaweed salt ($10). As dueling sweet and salty flavors tap danced across my tongue, one of my companions squared her shoulders, widened her eyes and uttered an emphatic "Wow!" This was a promising start. Additional wow-worthy dishes would follow.
After consuming every stray kernel of corn tempura, we moved on to salads and starters. The skewered mini heirloom tomatoes ($8) were delightful. Served at the peak of ripeness, they were placed atop delicate bits of prosciutto and drizzled with a top-notch white truffle oil. The Kemuri garlic pizza ($7) delivered a clever and tasty twist on traditional pie. Mozzarella, scallions, garlic and bonito flakes were layered over a crust made from golden fried wontons.
Atsuage ($8) featured a hearty portion of deep fried tofu and vegetable tempura served with a smoked soy dipping sauce. I became a cauliflower convert after sampling crisped florets topped with a tempting combination of olive oil, umami garlic sauce and pine nuts ($8). The beef tataki and kale salad ($15), by contrast, was a disappointment. While the greens were fresh and crunchy, a spicy wasabi dressing overpowered the bland slices of washu beef carpaccio.
Kemuri spotlights items from its binchotan grill. Binchotan, a type of white charcoal made from oak, burns at extremely high temperatures (about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the menu). The coals are clean burning and additive free, allowing items to preserve their natural juices and enabling quick sears for fish and meat. If there's any hesitation where to focus on Kemuri's menu, stick to the grilled dishes, rightfully positioned at the top of the first page.
Moriyama enhances the flavor of grilled fare with inventive sauces and seasonings. Kobe-style beef ($19.50), served medium with ponzu and wasabi, was tender and succulent, while jalapeño miso and smoked butter added a rich dimension to the gindara saikyo-yaki (black cod, $18). My reviewer's choice award went to salmon aburi ($16), a moist, perfectly seared filet elevated by a luscious citrus wasabi butter sauce ($16). Duck breast with satsuma tangerine ($18) was not in the same orbit, lacking the complexity and bold flavors of the other grilled selections.
The staff hustled but struggled to keep up at times, underscoring the need for the prominently posted "help wanted" sign. While servers attempted to identify the dishes that would take additional time to prepare, several estimates were well off the mark. The grilled pork chop that was supposed to take 20 minutes arrived at our table 45 minutes later. Some lengthy lags aside, employees were eager and upbeat, boosting the good-time vibe.
Japanese cuisine is often pigeonholed into sushi and ramen. Kemuri explores Japan's vast culinary heritage through a modern lens, providing a dining experience that's fresh and deeply satisfying.
Kemuri Japanese Barú
2616 Broadway St., Redwood City
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5:30-11 p.m. Saturday, 5-10:30 p.m. Sunday, 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Outdoor seating: Yes
Parking: Street and nearby lot
Alcohol: Full bar
Happy hour: No
Corkage: $20 per bottle
Noise level: Loud