akar chef-owner bernie lee photo by greg rannells

2019 Best New Restaurants // No. 6 Akar

When Bernie Lee is cooking what he loves, you’ll love it too. We learned that by eating the Malaysian dishes at his now-shuttered Hiro Asian Kitchen – and we’re reminded again at Akar.

This restaurant is a love letter to Lee’s past. The name means “roots” in Malay, and the menu is inspired by his childhood, his travels and what he cooks at home. The tiny new space on Wydown Boulevard offers Lee a chance to cook whatever he wants – from Rangoon stuffed with huge chunks of lobster meat, served with a spicy-sweet mango sauce to a burnished Cornish hen perched atop a mountain of sticky rice.

With only 18 seats inside, Akar aims for a serious takeout business, but you wouldn’t know that by the dine-in experience. The helpful, attentive wine service alone is a reason to return, and Lee himself will likely drop by your table to ensure you’re having a good time. Luckily, in warmer months, the charming patio doubles Akar’s seating.

Go for lunch and order off a short list of easy, crowd-pleasing dishes like bibimbap and banh mi, both with vegetarian options. Stay for dinner and enjoy eclectic international flavors like the Singapore chili sauce, a mildly spicy and sour sauce with a strong tomato-y sweetness that accompanies a crispy, tempura-battered fried soft-shell crab along with a sweet corn relish. Or try the insanely tender short rib, which comes topped with a rich and silky sambal-spiced demi-glace alongside mashed peas and burnt carrots. You’ll fall in love.

Heather Hughes Huff is managing editor at Sauce Magazine.