Is the Kentlands neighborhood big enough for two sushi restaurants? Ken and Aki Ballogdajan, the brother-sister team behind Kenaki Sushi Counter, are betting that it is.
Kenaki, a fusion sushi restaurant located next to the Kentlands Starbucks at 706 Center Point Way, offers quick counter service for lunch and a relaxed dining atmosphere, including wine, beer and sake, for dinner.
Kenaki’s executive chef, Ken Ballogdajan, brings years of experience as sous-chef at the celebrated Raku restaurant chain as well as a stint on TV’s “Iron Chef America,” a culinary degree from L’Academie de Cuisine, and an internship at Volt in Frederick under Chef Bryan Voltaggio.
Kenaki’s menu is a result of Ken’s culinary training “and a lifetime of eating good food at home,” said Aki, who manages the restaurant and can be seen daily behind the cash register. “We embrace the traditional but definitely aren’t afraid to play with food.”
While Kentlands is already home to the much loved Yoyogi Sushi, Aki believes that her brother’s experience in the restaurant industry uniquely positions Kenaki. Their relationship with the region’s best food suppliers, for example, allows them to “bring high-quality ingredients from places like Spain, Turkey or Japan right here to the suburbs.”
That includes traditional sushi items, such as California rolls and avocado rolls priced at an affordable $4, but quickly evolves into a fusion menu that will entice any foodie.
Take the potato salad that comes with the bento box (served at lunch for $13- $17). “The savory and crunchy components complement anything else on the menu,” Aki said, adding that this is based on a family recipe the siblings ate as children.
Kenaki’s signature rolls, featuring unique ingredients including tempura flakes, granny smith apple slices, and shitake mushrooms, average $12.
Aki is aware that Kenaki’s prices are higher than Yoyogi, their prime Kentlands competitor. “We are hoping that people will appreciate the quality that we offer,” she said. “I’ve had customers notice that we are more expensive than other local sushi options, but then they try the food and leave smiling.”
“I will go to both restaurants,” said Kentlands resident Jennifer Allen, who has eaten at Kenaki four times since it opened last month. “Kenaki’s pricing is a bit more expensive, but they offer things I can’t get at Yoyogi. Yoyogi is affordable and great on basics.”
Yoyogi owner Nancy Lui is comfortable with Yoyogi’s status as the Kentlands’ quick and affordable sushi option. “We have loyal customers who like a bargain and know our food is fresh and dependable,” she said.
Change is the norm in the Kentlands’ sushi scene these days. A rent hike led Yoyogi to close their original location in April of this year. The restaurant reopened in its new location at 35 Main St. in August.
The Ballogdajans opened Kenaki during a similar period of upheaval. Downtown Kentlands is currently undergoing an extreme facelift, with a construction project that will update storefront facades, introduce new retail space and bring a luxury cineplex to the downtown area.
My Big Finds owner Jodi Rapaport, whose collectibles shop is just around the corner from Kenaki, welcomes the restaurant as a new addition to the neighborhood business scene. “Kenaki is a unique restaurant that will attract people from other towns to the Kentlands, and that is great for neighborhood businesses.”
The bustling location was one reason the Ballogdajans chose to open Kenaki in Kentlands rather than nearby restaurant hubs in the Rio or Crown. “We loved this storefront property where patrons can people watch while they eat and walk to and from their homes,” Aki said. “The Kentlands is such a unique and tightknit neighborhood. We look forward to becoming a part of it.”