Chef Shinji Muramoto has revamped his original stomping grounds on King Street - the new Kushi Bar Muramoto inhabits the same narrow space that housed the original Sushi Muramoto. (If you're keeping track, that restaurant has moved down the block to the space that formerly hosted Cocoliquot.)
Where the original Muramoto typically featured hard bop and high-quality straight sushi, Kushi is more on the vibe-driven cool-jazz tip, with inexpensive small plates and a greatly expanded drink menu. It's more bar than restaurant, and Muramoto seems to be taking a hint from the highly effective mixture of noshing and hip cocktail slingers available at nearby Natt Spil.
Kushi Bar features small plates (a Japanese take on tapas) with an extensive drink menu that features sake and shochu. The redwood bar has been refinished and shellacked to a pristine glow, and the pinpoint track lighting creates a mood of chiaroscuro suited to a date or a casual after-work rendezvous with friends.
You are greeted with a bottle of chilled ice water. While you contemplate the food menu, consider something off the deep sake and shochu lists. Sake is rice wine and in the West is too often presented as hot, icky syrup that's cheap and awful. Served cold (either filtered or unfiltered), high-end sake is the nectar of the gods. The Sawoni junmai diaginjo sake is a cloudy and transcendent dilution of water, rice and koji mold - try it. Shochu, a clear distilled spirit, is the other homegrown Japanese liquor. It's somewhat harsh to the American palate if served neat and improves on the rocks, but for the conservative tongue a specialty cocktail like the barley shochu/ginger beer/lime juice Tokyo Mule might be a better bet. We tried barley-based Alakey and sweet potato-based Okunomatsu shochu, both quaffable with a water chaser, if not exactly smooth.
The menu is divided into three sections: kushi (skewers, $1.50 to $2.75), ippin (sides, $3-$5) and donburi (rice bowls, $5.50 to $8).
We tried quite a few kushi, which is fun because they're so inexpensive. Hotate (scallops) are delicious glazed in sweet soy sauce, rolled in panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), skewered and deep-fried. There is a lot of panko rolling and deep-frying going on here; this catering to Wisconsin tastes often works, but sometimes prevents properly experiencing what seem to be decent-quality ingredients. The uzura (panko-fried boiled quail egg) is dry and bland; the panko-fried bacon tomato sacrifices proper cooking of the bacon for pliability in wrapping the delicate tomato, a poor exchange. There are other misfires on the skewer menu: sunagimo (salted chicken gizzards) are tough and nearly require hot sauce, and reba (glazed chicken livers) is too intense for more than a bite.
But go ahead and experiment, since all of the skewers are so reasonable. This is where the sauces really come into play. Four side sauces are handy at every table: tonaktsu, curry coconut cream, spicy miso sauce and the house hot sauce. "I could keep a bottle of this curry coconut cream sauce in my fridge," my date remarked. "And put it on everything, from rice to noodles." It really is that good.
The ippin menu includes spicy chicken wings, Spam pineapple salad, and two tofu preparations: agedashi (deep fried and served in a tangy, intense dashi sauce with floating scallions) and kimuchi (served cold with kimchi, pickled cabbage). Both are excellent.
Donburi are full meals. The spicy miso grilled pork is subtle and addictive. The rice, saturated with the drizzles of the miso sauce, is a meal in itself. This dish is a powerful experience, slow to build but incredibly satisfying.
It's almost street food, priced absolutely correctly, and it works. You can order three skewers for five bucks! That's anomalous and refreshing, and a welcome addition to King Street eateries.
If we found that concessions to American cuisine impinge a bit on the experience, the guys next to us on our first visit seemed to love their bacon cheeseburger and taco rice bowls as they split edamame. With Kushi, Muramoto has a good handle on a different formula, perhaps best exemplified by the single available dessert: panko deep-fried Snickers bars, two for a dollar.