Discuss, share, repeat: Madison restaurant returns to Japanese tapas

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By Bill Livick, Special to The Gazette
Thursday, May 22, 2014

MADISON—Shinji Muramoto is one of the most recognized restaurateurs on the Madison culinary scene, having opened a half-dozen establishments in the past decade.

Some—Kushi Bar Muramoto and The Haze—didn't last more than a year or two. Others, including his flagship Restaurant Muramoto and Sushi Muramoto, are still going strong.

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the former, Muramoto has returned to his original approach of specializing in small plates meant for sharing. He has rolled out a new menu featuring izakaya—the Japanese equivalent of the gastro pub. That means less emphasis on entrée-sized plates known as onsai (hot dishes) and more on sakizuke dishes, a Japanese version of tapas.

Muramoto operates on the belief that the small-plate format promotes sharing and encourages diners to try new things. It's also an opportunity for the kitchen staff to show off its creativity.

The izakaya menu worked as designed for our party of four last week. We sampled an array of sushi rolls, cut into bite-sized pieces for sharing, along with a few things from other parts of the menu.

The first trick to enjoying Restaurant Muramoto is simply finding the place. It's located in the heart of downtown, just a door or two from the intersection of King Street and East Wilson Avenue. But the restaurant's only sign is printed in small letters on the front door— almost impossible to see from the street.

I suppose that encourages foot traffic and lends the restaurant an air of exclusivity. Still, hiding a business like that seems odd.

The dining room is an upscale, sprawling space with table seating, along with a snaking counter that offers a view of an open kitchen.

Without a reservation on a Thursday night, our only option was to sit at the counter—and we were glad for that by the end of our meal. It was a pleasure to watch kitchen staffers ply their trade, and it was also a relaxed place to sit and discuss the food.

And that is one of the place's top priorities.

Muramoto's new menu, in bold letters, includes directions about ordering and sharing: 1. Have fun talking about the food, then order. 2. Share it. 3. Order more. 4. Save the starch for last.

And so we did.

The nigiri combo is a plate with six pieces of sushi—tuna, salmon, hamachi, snapper, eel and one chef's choice—laid over small balls of rice smeared with wasabi and soy sauce ($15).

These are good-sized pieces of seafood, as opposed to the smaller bits in sushi rolls. It's an opportunity to really taste the clean flavor of the raw fish and appreciate their subtle differences.

An order of steam buns (three for $8) consists of chilled pork belly wrapped with ginger-scallion soy relish in a flour dumpling. Muramoto's version is tasty but doesn't compare with the larger, livelier and tastier pork buns that Umami Restaurant offers on Willy Street.

From the “inside-out rolls” category (in which the rice is on the outside of the seaweed wrapper), we loved the kitchen's unagi roll ($8): freshwater eel with cucumber and eel sauce. Fixed up with slices of fresh ginger and a dab of wasabi, unagi is subtly sweet and delicious.

Also from the inside-out list, the California roll ($6) is a Japanese-American classic, with complementing components of crabmeat, avocado and cucumber, while a simple cucumber roll ($3) is designed as a palate cleanser.

The Tokyo picnic ($12) is listed in the “special rolls” category and includes crispy pork belly, Asian slaw and baconnaise (bacon-flavored mayonnaise)—a delightful departure from the seafood.

From the rice and noodle category, a bowl of curry udon ($6) really hit the spot. Udon is a thick wheat noodle, and this kitchen's version includes ground pork and scallions with the noodles in a curry-flavored broth.

We also sampled a standard bowl of miso soup ($3).

The evening's surprise came in the form of marinated dried squid, served with a soft-poached quail egg, chives and fresh greens ($8). It was a surprise to our friend who placed the order; he didn't anticipate the spicy heat of the dish. Its unusual texture and flavor also were new to our group. Opinions about the flavor ranged from fabulous to terrible.

The restaurant offers a full spectrum of sake, the fermented rice beverage, as well as a variety of craft beers.

Eight desserts are listed on the menu.  Among the more interesting are a strawberry spring roll with honey ginger ice cream ($7), chocolate Satsuma beignets with miso caramel ($7) and a banana bread pudding with cinnamon crème fraiche sorbet and pecan toffee ($7).

A final word about Restaurant Muramoto: Service is excellent on all levels. This is a great place to eat if you're looking for a memorable experience.

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