On a recent visit to the Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Fla., I had the amazing experience of eating at Kuro, a new-style Japanese restaurant that can be best described as if Nobu and Izakaya had a culinary baby.
When asked how it was, I told everyone, “If the Hard Rock Atlantic City’s Kuro could maintain the standards of the Hollywood version, it will be one of the best — if not THE best — restaurant in Atlantic City.”
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And while it’s a little too soon to say that Kuro is there yet — after all, they just opened Fourth of July weekend — that potential exists … in a big way.
Even a meal there on opening weekend, when servers and the kitchen were just getting accustomed to working the room and were absolutely slammed by more customers than they ever envisioned, was very impressive.
A major reason for that success is Vice President of Food & Beverage Grace Chow’s oversight and decision to enlist Derek Powers to serve as Kuro’s executive chef. The choice was a logical one: Powers worked in Kuro’s kitchen in Hollywood with Executive Chef Alex Becker for four years and would make the opening in Atlantic City less challenging for everyone involved, especially since Becker assisted in the opening.
“Kuro speaks to me because we try not to be like everyone else,” Powers says. “Dining at Kuro is a journey, an experience … not just a meal.”
Powers’ journey started in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised and eventually went to culinary school, then landed his first legit job at Katsuya, a Japanese restaurant which now has 13 locations.
It’s there where he met his mentor Becker, who was then Katsuya’s corporate chef who brought with him a Nobu background and tremendous creativeness.
When Becker left to open the first Kuro in Hollywood, Powers wasn’t far behind, rejoining Becker to learn even more.
“He has always been a great mentor,” Powers says. “Once this opportunity came up to open another Kuro, I pounced at it. It feels great to run the kitchen. In Hollywood, I was Alex’s baby — and that was fine — but I wanted to push myself to get my own shot like I have here in Atlantic City. I love the food and the concept and I believe in Kuro and the Hard Rock. So I’m happy.”
Chow also tapped another upscale dining veteran to serve as General Manager. Matthew Kenkelen, who made a name for himself managing Ruth’s Chris Steak House in A.C, immediately provides a motivational leader and knowledge to bring Kuro’s expected service standards to Atlantic City.
“When they approached me about it I got very excited because I had been doing steakhouses for 10 years,” Kenkelen says. “It sounded fun and exciting and I was really open to a new challenge, and it just turned out to be phenomenal. Grace is a class act and has taught us all so much. You don’t want to let her down … ever.”
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Kuro takes pride in featuring contemporary artisanal dishes using locally sourced and imported ingredients directly from Japan.
Dishes are complex. Ingredients are bold, yet flavors harmonious. The setting is all class, no kitsch, with its subdued lighting, neutral color scheme and open kitchen.
When Kuro says they use the finest and freshest ingredients, they aren’t kidding.
Powers and his team discuss fresh fish options with their purveyors on a daily basis and are very selective when the orders arrive.
“They understand that if something arrives that is not up to par, we aren’t going to take it,” Powers says.
Kenkelen agrees. “I think that’s what surprised me the most. They have this spare-no-expense, go-premium-quality-on-everything attitude where money is not the issue. It’s about getting the best food. They pay for the best service and then figure out the rest from there. It’s all about the best guest experience.”
Kenkelen, who is in touch with the front of the house the most, recommends the Wagyu tacos ($16) with spicy cilantro, soy shallots and aji Amarillo aioli “that are just ridiculous;” the tuna crispy rice ($16) with spicy tuna and caviar that “every table gets,” and the Kuro Nigiri ($10 to $20 for two pieces), “which is created by chefs who are like artists working in the kitchen.”
He’s right, but there is so much more, including nearly 20 styles of maki/hand roll, more than dozen more sushi/sashimi and 10 examples of the aforementioned Kuro Nigiri, special house creations like seared hamachi ($12) with cilantro and jalapeno ponzu; king crab ($14) with yuzu, miso and kizami yuzu; and otoro — the best part of the tuna belly — with tsukudani nori and kombu.
“To describe our Kuro Nigiri, I would say, imagine if you are going to a sushi-based restaurant where you don’t need to have soy sauce,” Powers says. “Everything is already dressed and have their own accoutrements. Just eat it as the chef prepares it.”
Appetizers are plentiful and impossible to choose. The tacos and tuna crispy rice are no-brainers, as are the crispy Brussels sprouts ($9) with pears, chives and soy-honey; the fresh oysters ($18) with kombu mignonette and the tuna tataki ($20) with creamy avocado, lime soy and miso bagna cauda will make you gravitate toward the chilled section of the menu; and salads like the Udon ($16) with cold udon, shrimp, kale and goma dressing will make it inviting to eat healthy.
But if you’re not in the healthy mood, there are 10 types of tempura including crispy white fish ($16) with hazelnut furikake, truffle and vinaigrette, scallops ($20) with spice edmame and yuzu kosho yogurt; and the softshell crab ($9) with shiso, ponzu and lemon.
A Japanese restaurant wouldn’t be worth its chopsticks without a beautiful Robata charcoal grill that is making BBQ seem exotic with selections like the Berkshire pork belly ($12) with scallions, ginger and miso glaze; Chicken Momo ($9) with yuzu kosha and olive oil; and even avocado ($8) with carrot, ginger and wasbi-lime gel.
Or for the ultimate indulgence, try the Japanese Wagyu beef ($24 per ounce, 3-ounce minimum) that is served on a hot stone Japanese grill.
Entrees are separated by “Sea” and “Land” with must-try items like the shell-roasted Lobster Shiso ($50) with shiso kimizu; the Chilean sea bass miso ($29) with pickled daikon and tamamiso; Koji lamb ($34) with curry carrots, tofu yogurt and blueberry jus; and — to save the best for last — Wagyu Donburi ($23), braised shortrib with ansen tamago and jus, which is the best deal of the menu, too.
The desserts are as appealing as the rest of the meal. Check out the Japanese doughnuts ($9) with anko ganache, peanut butter and matcha Anglaise; or the mind-blowingly complex sesame panna cotta ($11) with ginger gelee, cucumber sphere and nori sponge, which will be the most interesting dessert you will try all year.
When Hard Rock opened last month, everyone expected it to be busy, but no one expected it to be this busy.
“I worked in casinos before and figured it would be pretty busy, but I thought the Japanese restaurant would be a little less busy than our flagship, Council Oak Fish,” Kenkelen says. “Boy, was I wrong. People who heard about us or have been to the location in Florida couldn’t wait to get in here. I hear people tell me over and over that this is not like other casino restaurants. I think we have something special here.”
In less than a month. Kuro has become the buzz restaurant of the summer. And it will only get better.
“I think Kuro will become a common household name,” Kenkelen says. “When people think of a Japanese restaurant in South Jersey, Kuro will be the name that will come up. We won’t be satisfied until we have the best service, the best food and make Kuro the example of why you go out to eat … to have every expectation exceeded.”