Shinji Muramoto isn't just one of Madison's most creative chefs; he's also a very savvy restaurateur who knows how to seize on any reasonable trend. His Sushi Muramoto, in the prime spot across from Sundance, is thriving because it's smart enough to serve all the things you want to eat right now (though surprisingly it's the hot dishes, not that gummy sushi, that fare best).
And his Restaurant Muramoto on King Street shows off another shrewdly curated, of-the-moment menu. So it was a surprise when he opened 43 North, partly because the restaurant's swank concept seemed at odds with the times. Madison was already the state's favorite whipping boy when 43 North premiered, and that meant there weren't many locals left who could afford the restaurant's luxe bistro approach and fairly hefty prices. The fresher downtown template was the Underground Kitchen's more casual farm-fresh fiesta of locavore plates.
But Muramoto's other talent is an ability to shift gears quickly, and the result is a second chance - and maybe a whole second life - for 43 North. The restaurant's recently inaugurated fresh start of a menu, unveiled just before Thanksgiving, comes courtesy of new chef Nick Johnson (moving over from the late, lamented Magnus), working with sous chef Francesca Hong. It's a pared-down, cheaper bill of fare, foreshadowed by the edited dining room itself. The linens have been whipped off those chunky wood tables (amazing what a seemingly minor adjustment can do), and the long dining room, punctuated by purple banquettes and an open kitchen, suddenly looks cleaner and less stuffy.
And the renovated menu can look like one very good deal. There is a three-course tasting menu very reasonably priced at $30, and almost all the entrees on the a la carte menu come in under $20. At a time when everyone except Walker's posse is silently, anxiously doing the math before they order dinner, that's a crucial change in itself.
Just as crucial: A lot of the new dishes flaunt a fresh kind of excitement. Most exciting, and the dish I would return for, is the hanger steak pastrami tossed in a bowl with red cabbage slaw, pickled grapes, rye bread croutons, romaine lettuce and Russian dressing. If that sounds like a meal in itself - all for $10 - it is, and the layering of textures and flavors is sublime. The cured slices of velvety pastrami play off the crunch of the slaw and croutons, and the sweet dressing is undercut by the pop of the pickled grapes. Almost as good are the kitchen's bowl of beet soup studded with pistachio and a dish of three pretty scallops dressed with passion fruit beurre.
Among entrees the best of the good bunch is a game hen dish. This is a plate where everything coheres: the perfectly cooked thigh and breast of the bird, topped by a golden crackling skin; the slightly too pillowy but still good potato gnocchi; and the sorrel and mustard caramel that wraps the whole thing up.
The braised beef short ribs on the tasting menu are tender, and the wagyu skirt steak is a mix of tender and tough, though that's the nature of skirt steak. If you have the money opt for the wagyu strip instead.
What still needs to be edited? I'd start with the only real flop of the meal: an overcooked (almost tough) slab of defiantly flavorless monkfish, further undermined by a very oily chorizo vinaigrette that imparted only an oddly fishy aftertaste. The pork jowl rillette on the tasting menu was too pulverized and grainy, and the standard-issue green salad deserves more creativity. And some of the desserts, like almost all restaurant desserts these days, desperately need more life. The passion fruit parfait - actually three puny tart cubes - are fine as palate cleansers but make you pine for a real, flamboyant parfait layered up in a tall glass.
A much bigger finish was the winter squash cake with maple candies and rosemary caramel. Like that supernal pastrami salad, at least the cake had a sense of playful humor. And that, these days, is worth more than any passé, unaffordable formalities.