One of the Madison dining scene’s most active chef entrepreneurs, Shinji Muramoto, is a restless sort who seems to thrive on change.
Since opening his flagship Restaurant Muramoto on King Street just off the Capitol Square in 2003, he’s opened (and closed) a half-dozen other eateries.
Last year, he closed his under-appreciated, new-American bistro 43 North, only to later open Muramoto Downtown in its place at 108 King Street. (It’s the counterpart to his extremely popular near-west-side restaurant, Muramoto Hilldale.) A month later, he and a couple of partners opened another Japanese-fusion restaurant, Morris Ramen, next to his sushi restaurant.
The new Muramoto Downtown features a handsome wood interior with minimal décor, and it is smaller and more intimate than his previous sushi restaurants. There is a handful of seats facing an open kitchen where sushi chefs are busy preparing orders. The main dining area is on the opposite side of the narrow space, with about a dozen tables in a row.
At the front of the restaurant, the owner created a semi-secluded room for larger groups.
One thing that hasn’t changed in the transformation to Muramoto Downtown is the quality of the fare. This is some of the most inventive and delectable sushi and sashimi in Madison, featuring premium ingredients and careful presentation. Not everything we sampled rose to the level of greatness, but it was all a pleasure to taste nonetheless.
The menu offers about a dozen options in the special rolls category. These are large rolls, costing $12-$16 and containing an assortment of ingredients. They’re called “special” rolls because the traditional Japanese roll emphasizes simplicity and pure flavor; special rolls are often described as “new generation” sushi because they’re outside the tradition.
From that category, we loved the Tarantula ($16), an inside-out roll (meaning the rice is on the outside) combining two types of crab (soft-shell and rock crab) cucumber, avocado and scallion, topped with shiny beads of tobiko (flying fish roe) and accented with masago (smelt roe) mayonnaise. Similar to a spider roll, it was well executed and presented, and it featured a generous amount of crispy crab that stood out for both its texture and flavor.
After a few bites, my dining companion commented the food exudes a sense of good health and nutrition, with its abundance of vitamins, protein and essential fatty acids.
We were pleased with the kitchen’s California roll ($16), a meatier affair that featured several types of fish (tuna, yellowtail and salmon) along with rock crab, avocado and cucumber. Even better was an Ecuador roll ($16), a spicy combination of tuna, yellowtail, jalapeno, masago mayo, scallions and tempura crumbs for extra crunchiness.
The menu offers a choice of edibles, or appetizers, that includes several soups and salads along with edamame, assorted Japanese pickles (Tsukmono), poke du jour (a dish of assorted foods that changes daily) and an assortment of fish and meats served in small portions with spices and seasonings.
A roasted beet salad ($6) comes with broccoli and thin slices of radish topped with a drizzle of vinaigrette, while the house salad ($7) was a crunchy combination of mixed greens, cabbage, mixed herbs and a sesame vinaigrette.
My companion didn’t think much of the kitchen’s edamame ($4), but I found the salty soybeans that come in a pod delightful when dipped in a bit of soy sauce.
Surprises found in the edibles selections include a fried chicken leg ($7), grilled chicken with mushrooms and kimchi ($14) and crispy pork belly with sweet soy-black vinegar glaze and kimchi ($9).
Although we didn’t partake, mixologists behind the bar offer some innovative specialty drinks. Also available is wine, bottled beers, shochu, sake and whiskey drinks.
Muramoto Downtown was busy on a Friday night, and the service was a tad slow at times. If you’re heading there from Thursday to Saturday, it’s a good idea to call ahead, reserve a table and be prepared for a phenomenal dining experience.
Bill Livick is a freelance writer who writes entertainment stories and Madison-area restaurant reviews for The Gazette.