A venture to this state park is on the must-do list for many, the park being the only spot in North America where you can dig for diamonds and other gemstones and keep your finds.
We have a confession to make: We're not big fans of hibachi restaurants, which tend to be long on showmanship and short on taste. In addition, we generally avoid any place that describes its menu with the increasingly generic phrase "Asian fusion." With that in mind, we approached Sky Modern Japanese Restaurant in the Pleasant Ridge Town Center with trepidation mixed with the usual excitement we feel about trying a new place. Sky's menu is indeed diverse, with traditional Japanese dishes such as tekkadon appearing side-by-side with French-inspired cuisine like salmon topped with orange aioli. And while the restaurant does devote an extensive section of its menu to hibachi cuisine, the food was done so well, and with such an attention to detail in flavor and presentation, that our initial reservations melted away even before we finished our appetizer.
We started with the Beef Tataki ($7), a chilled dish of pounded rare steak just lightly seared on the grill and served with a savory sauce. The beef itself was buttery and meltingly tender, and though almost rare enough to be considered fully raw, it carried a surprising amount of flavor from its brief time on the grill. There was just enough of the sauce, a thicker version of the traditional citrus-soy ponzu, to coat the thin slices of beef, and the tangy flavor was a perfect complement to the tataki. This was the rare appetizer that we felt sad to finish, eating it slowly so as to prolong the inevitable.
We had hoped to continue our meal with a platter of sushi, but due to an error of timing, our hot dishes came out next. We decided to try one hibachi dish, the New York Strip/Chicken/Shrimp combination ($23) and a bowl of Pork Ramen ($12.00). The grilled meats weren't anything groundbreaking, but they were seasoned well and served with a side of vegetables that were cooked just right: firm and crisp, grilled lightly. We were disappointed that the plate included only two medium-sized shrimp, but the portions of chicken and steak were more than adequate. The optional fried rice ($3) was another standout, just sticky enough for easy chopstick eating but not greasy or heavy. As for the ramen, fans of all things pig will find themselves in a state of porcine bliss with the milky and fragrant broth dotted with just a dash of what looked like sesame oil. The noodles themselves were firm and plentiful, but unfortunately clumped together in the bottom of the bowl in a way that left some of them undercooked. The ramen was topped with scallions and a boiled egg, but it was missing the fish cake mentioned in the menu description.
When our sushi finally arrived, we realized why it took so long. The Blue Sky Platter ($39) consisted of a spicy tuna roll, an Alaskan roll, 12 pieces of nigiri (each with a different kind of fish) and a volcano roll stacked into the shape of an actual volcano; it was one of the largest groupings of sushi we'd ever seen outside of a buffet setting. Our waitress mentioned that the sushi chef at Sky has more than 20 years of experience, and after our first bite we could believe it. The spicy tuna was the star of the plate with its generous portion of moist ahi tuna mixed with just the barest amount of spicy sauce to make a roll that started out savory and ended with a nice kick. The Alaskan roll featured creamy avocado and crispy cucumber topped by a piece of salmon and a dot of caviar, and made for a nice combination of different textures. We found the tempura-battered and deep fried volcano rolls covered with a creamy, spicy sauce to be a bit too much, but we admit this was a matter of personal taste and not due to any lack of quality in preparation.
The various pieces of nigiri sushi were our true love of the night. Each piece of fish — including two types of tuna (albacore and ahi), salmon, red snapper, eel and octopus — were among some of the freshest seafood we've ever gotten in Arkansas. Each piece of fish was cut thick, overlapping and overtaking its small pedestal of rice in such a way that each piece was almost too much for a single bite. At no time did any of the fish taste off, and we found ourselves marveling at the spectrum of different tastes and textures present in something as simple as a piece of fish atop a bit of rice. We noticed that Sky has some rather rare sushi such as bluefin tuna, sea urchin, and toro on the menu, but we were told that they were out of stock of each on our visit.
In the end, we were forced to admit that the staff at Sky was more than capable of living up to the ambitious menu. This is a place where a large group with divergent tastes could feel confident that there would be something on the menu for all. Service was prompt and attentive, although the wait staff and kitchen need to work on their timing, as dishes seemed to arrive with no rhyme or reason. With their attention to quality ingredients, flavorful preparation and stylish presentation, Sky is a strong entrant into the Little Rock restaurant scene, and with such a wide variety of well-executed dishes on the menu they're sure to get a return visit from us in the near future.
Sky Modern Japanese Restaurant
11525 Cantrell Road (Pleasant Ridge Town Center)
With three bars (hibachi, sushi, and beverage), floor seating, and a spacious patio, Sky might have the most seating options of any restaurant in town.
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to closing Monday through Friday, noon to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to closing Saturday and Sunday.
All major credit cards, full bar.