It’s always fascinating to find out the story behind a restaurant – how the owners came to be here, the concept they envisaged and how that translates into the restaurant’s menu and daily life.
No journey is more interesting than that of Kemuri’s owners, Hiroyuki Okubo and his wife Yuki.
After coming to Australia twenty years ago, Hiro began his life in Australia as a waiter, working his way up to sommelier and then to restaurant and wine consultant. After working for Luke Mangan at Glass, then the Sydney Hilton, he transferred to the Hilton Surfers Paradise, then to Head Sommelier at Paper Daisy (taking it from being unrated to a 3-glass restaurant in three years) before consulting to Ten Japanese through its change of concept.
Yet, through it all, he held onto his dream of owning his own wine bar or restaurant in a thriving dining precinct.
With Yuki as chef, in 2015 the couple started their own weekend business as a popup stall in Miami Marketta, settling on a more permanent location in a tiny suburban shopping centre at Carrara late in 2018.
“The reality of rent and the cost of the product (wine) were factors in our choice,” Hiro says, “and this place is only a five-minute walk from our home. It’s a small room, ideal for us to start our first restaurant.”
With the goal to sell to locals, their restaurant’s name, Kemuri, means ‘smoke’ in Japanese.
“Smoke leads to a good smell. You know that something is cooking,” he tells us.
At first glance, the menu looks as simple as the tiny wood-faced venue with white-washed walls, serving bao, gyoza, Japanese curry and other bowl food (all $15 and under) with a few choices of sides.
But that’s where simple stops!
Our order for a couple of bao, a plate of gyoza and karaage arrives.
I feel the bao, turn it over and then I know: the bao buns are handmade! (One of only three places on the GC to do so, the others being Lucky Bao and Jimmy Wah’s.) They’re a work of love by Yuki, his French-trained chef wife, who spends several hours each morning making the buns (as well as all the sauces).
It takes passion and a little craziness to make bao, a temperamental process that defies consistency, the yeast activity differing according to moisture, humidity and temperature. These buns are soft and fluffy, the softshell crab crunchy, with a tang of homemade chipotle mayo – the perfect antithesis of texture!
The plate of gyoza is joined by a fine biscuit-like layer that snaps as we bite it: ‘Angel Wings gyoza’, I’m to learn later, made by a special technique used in some specialty gyoza shops in Japan. The karaage also is light and fluffy – the best we’ve had.
“I’ve spent my life in great restaurants and I wanted to do something unique that no one else does,” Hiro tells me the next day as he serves me an intriguing bowl of Tsukemen or dipping ramen: cold noodles with hot soup, their highly addictive next signature dish.
Four dishes. Not just wonderful, but perfect. Who needs more than this?
“The real secret is using excellent quality fresh ingredients with simple seasoning, no MSG,” Hiro sums up, “Byron Bay free-range pork, free-range chicken from the Glasshouse Mountains. There’s a huge difference in tenderness and flavour of the meat,” he adds.
And the dream of a wine bar?
“We will extend as the business builds and we’d like to get a liquor license so we can carry a few good wines from small producers,” he tells us.
There’s a well-known saying: ‘You don’t know what you don’t know.’
Without stating the obvious, I think it would be easy to drive past this little place because it looks a little different to the norm.
Collectively, we have a huge gap in our knowledge of Japanese cuisine, but a willingness to learn can reveal exciting and unexpected surprises. Give it a go!
3/124 Pappas Way, Carrara Ph: 0451 133 996 Open: Wed 3 – 9pm; Thurs 12 – 3pm, 5 – 9pm; Fri – Sat 12 – 9pm.