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Wednesday, January 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Maki at the mall
Shinji Muramoto launches a Hilldale eatery

Sushi Muramoto
546 N. Midvale Blvd., 441-1090
11 am-10 pm daily. Entrées $14-$20. Mall parking. Wheelchair accessible. Checks and credit cards.

How quickly can a city change? Take a look at Madison's near west side. Last year Hilldale Shopping Center was a slumped, sad, vacuous wasteland, an odd mix of one-theme shops and a dying department store overstocked with Frango mints. The whole thing was an embarrassment to malls everywhere. And that's about as embarrassing as things get.

A year later Hilldale is an emblem of resurgence and one of the city's most urbane corners. On a recent Saturday night, in fact, the crowds jumping between the Sundance cineplex and the row of newly opened restaurants clustered at the mall's southern end were a blur of dynamic energy, a reminder that anything can come back from the brink and start over.

Adding to the mall's new luster, and bringing a real shot of downtown cred, is Sushi Muramoto, which recently opened directly across from Sundance. Nothing seems like a better fit for a mall that wanted to up its style quotient.

That's because the original, and still thriving, King Street Restaurant Muramoto is simply one of the city's best kitchens and one of its most savvy. Under the seasoned guidance of chef Shinji Muramoto, it turns out a sophisticated menu of global dishes and does everything right - from its inventive, glossy maki to its delicate way with tofu and lamb.

Maybe that's why Sushi Muramoto can seem like a small disappointment, if only because it's hard to live up to a gold standard. And at first glance it lives up well. The open, airy restaurant - a sunlit antidote to the downtown Muramoto's intimate, low-wattage dining room - flaunts its refreshing anti-mall esthetic. The soaring glass windows, the dark laminate tables and the long sushi bar backed by a vivid red wall aspire more to understated Chelsea chic than West Towne comfort.

So does the snaking menu, which offers a much more ambitious sushi selection than the King Street Muramoto, along with larger entrée plates. And it's the entrées that suggest things still need some tweaking here.

While the King Street Muramoto turns out some smaller star-turn tofu dishes, the Hilldale rendition, a deep-fried-tofu dish, lacks their finesse and delicacy. In fact, the two very fat, surprisingly uncouth blocks of tofu come so deep-fried their tough shells are hard to penetrate, and the fall-out of sautéed baby carrots, asparagus and mushrooms underscore the tofu's own lack of taste.

Also thinking too big is the duck breast, a generous pan-roasted slice that is rubbery and gamey, and that approaches overkill with its sides of satsuma mashed potato and its pecan and bacon compote.

Most surprising, bordering on inexplicable, is the kitchen's problems with its signature sushi. Chef Muramoto is a seasoned sushi chef, though he wasn't behind the sushi counter either time I dropped by. And that may explain why too much of the sushi I sampled featured an excess of rice that turned the nigri sushi gummy and undermined the inside-out rolls and special rolls, none of which were tightly rolled enough, and all of which were overpowered by their thick coat.

My guess, though, is that the sushi will improve immediately, as soon as the endlessly talented chef Muramoto has management under control, always a distraction with new restaurants, and can turn back to the sushi bar. (We may have just been the victims of bad luck and timing, arriving on nights when the chef didn't have time to work the bar.)

And there are plenty of other compensations to be had here already. The fail-proof miso black cod, though not as firm as it could be, is still a knock-out dish, the delicate taste of the black cod somehow augmented by the sweet miso sauce. A broiled Atlantic salmon comes roused by a subtle curried mussel soup, and some of the special rolls live up to their name. The dragon roll in particular - a show-stopping pileup of tempura shrimp, eel, avocado and masago mayo - is as good as it sounds.

And the Muramoto roll - a medley of tuna, sweet shrimp, squid, sprouts and salmon roe, all wrapped up in bright yellow egg paper - is a one-dish party. Chances are, with a little editing and finessing, the rest of Muramoto's menu will follow its happy lead soon.

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