Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Kiyen's Japanese Restaurant is an odd-looking place. There's the typical hostess station setup at the entrance, but piled all around that are tables, chairs and other dining room ephemera that serve as a wall to block off half the dining room. Apparently, the part that is blocked off was originally designed to accommodate tableside hibachi cooking, left over from the previous occupant, Papa Sushi. It seems Kiyen's has decided not to go that route. The open side of the dining room is free from all clutter, though, and provides a nice space for lunch or dinner.
We bring up the entrance because we have to admit that our first impression of Kiyen's wasn't a great one. In addition to the rummage sale look by the front door, there was only one server for the busy dining room, which meant we spent quite a bit more time with our menus than was necessary. When our poor, harried server did finally make it to our table, she apologized immediately for the wait, took our order and spent the rest of the meal steadily changing that bad first impression into something quite good through a generous dose of hard work.
Our moods brightened even further when our food, an assortment of sushi, came. The basic tuna roll ($7) was filled with large pieces of fresh, ruby red tuna, wrapped in the sort of lightly seasoned, slightly warm rice and seaweed. The spicy tuna roll ($7) didn't fare quite as well — the tuna was minced and a touch mushy — but it still tasted good. A final tuna-themed roll, the Kiss of Fire Roll ($12), was a combination of the other two: minced tuna and cucumber wrapped in rice and seaweed, then topped with more fish and a spicy sauce — a tuna lover's dream. Some of the wraps fell apart, but we managed.
On a follow-up visit for dinner we branched out and tried some of the non-sushi portions of the menu. A plate of chicken fried rice ($7.99) came out piping hot and chock-full of goodies. A bowl of miso soup ($2.99), sadly, suffered from some separation issues that left a layer of clear water on top and all the miso at the bottom. The dish of the night was the oddly named "Heading to the Mountain" salad ($9.99), which piled seared tuna and fried noodles atop a bowl of spring mix to great effect, and was only made better by the addition of a tangy dressing. Not being able to go without sushi completely, we made our way through a California roll ($5) and a spider roll ($12), and were pleased by both, especially the delicious tempura-battered soft-shell crab in the spider. The dining room wasn't nearly as chaotic on this second visit, and our server — the same as before — took excellent care of us.
Kiyen's is tucked away in the Centre at Chenal shopping center on the east side of Chenal Parkway just south of the mammoth Promenade at Chenal — meaning that it may not stand out from the gilded crowd. The cluttered and understaffed dining room issues certainly don't help this. The kitchen is talented, though, and everyone was so friendly on both our visits that we think Kiyen's has the potential to become one of Little Rock's top restaurants for both traditional Japanese food and Asian fusion cuisine. We saw things on the menu that we'll try when we return — and for us, that's the best sign of a good restaurant we can think of.