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Friday, July 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 66.0° F  Fair
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FOOD AND DRINK

East-meets-west barbecue smackdown at The Haze
New Muramoto venture pairs classy meats and subtle sauces


Credit:Timothy Hughes
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Madison doesn't have enough true culinary auteurs, but Shinji Muramoto helps make up for the gap. Eschewing limp imitations of passing trends, or generic menus, Muramoto is the kind of itchy, driven, tirelessly inventive chef who wants to goose our tastebuds and up the local gastronomic ante.

The result has been a dizzying display of ambition and creativity over the past few years, and an evolving empire. Now simultaneously running the deservedly popular Sushi Muramoto at Hilldale, and Restaurant Muramoto downtown, the chef recently shuttered his most intimate kitchen, the tapas-happy Kushi Bar (by far the best tapas restaurant in town).

But not for long. Opening in Kushi's place is the Haze, which has a very clear focus and a sure, thoughtful sense of self.

Billed as an American+Asian Bar-B-Que, this is Muramoto's most carnivorous experiment, a chance to show that he can be as inventive with meat as he has been with seafood, though he's not working alone here. Anything but. Adding their own impressive pedigrees, and sure-fire cooking skills, are co-owners Justin Carlisle, of deserved Harvest fame, and pastry chef Dan Almquist, coming from Lombardino's. It's almost a given, considering that three of Madison's top chefs are converging in one kitchen and collaborating on concept and menu, that this new experiment works.

Patrons of the Kushi Bar won't notice much of a difference when they enter the long, clean dining room. Putting their efforts into the new menu, instead of any concerted redesign, the chefs have left the minimalist look of the place alone, so the snaking black banquette, the handsome dark wood walls and the long bar are all still standing. Only the lights have been turned up, so you can see the menu scrawled on a big blackboard, and the cooks, looking fittingly Zen-like, preparing dishes behind the bar.

The instructions are clearly spelled out on that blackboard. There are three steps to eating at the Haze. First, pick a meat. Second, pick your choice of an Eastern or Western rendition of the meat. Third, pick two sides.

Things, though, aren't that simple. With the sheer fallout of choices, there are a lot of dishes to choose from - 11 meats in all - and even when you narrow those choices down, you need to choose whether you want the Eastern (served with rice) or Western (served with cowboy Texas toast) version of the meat.

If you're considering the pork, go Eastern. The char-siu pork features a plate of thin-sliced, tender, almost juicy pork that's so delicately flavored it shows up every lackluster char-siu rendition dished up in too many faux Asian kitchens. Just as good is the miso brisket, another plate of perfectly cooked meat wearing a slightly smoky, subtly spicy miso sauce.

Does that mean the Eastern renditions trump the West? Well, mostly, though nothing is really disappointing here, especially considering the relatively cheap prices and the heaped plates (don't forget those two sides). But the dry-rubbed brisket, true to its name, was dry and underwhelming, and the heaped pile of chopped pork didn't rise to the level of any good barbecue shack. The Eastern versus Western ribs, though, were a draw: Both the Eastern black vinegar glaze ribs and the wet-mopped Western ribs were elegant renditions, the tender meat holding tight to the bone and the sauces equally understated (though I'd veer toward the almost candied black vinegar glaze).

Not enough meat? The spicy lemongrass sausage is one classy sausage, and the crispy Peking duck features a luscious layer of lacquered skin, cushioned by a seam of fat that adds flavor. It's the perfect antidote to the going fashion for neutered ducks stripped of their skin and served in a bloody, tasteless slice.

But then nothing at the Haze tastes like an afterthought. That extends to the sides, except for some mealy fries. The best of the bunch: roasted ginger beets, chunky potato salad tossed with pork, and sesame cabbage. The desserts are also seductive. Almquist's monkey bread pudding, only resembling an exploded cinnamon roll, is actually a thoughtfully delicate version of a potentially sloppy dish. But then that's exactly what you'd expect from a kitchen flaunting this much talent.

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