Whether opening a new restaurant or just keeping one popular, chefs are required to strike a precise balance between the exciting and the comfortable. They must also balance the desires of customers with their own preferred methods of artistry.
Shinji Muramoto calls Madison "a difficult food town." In Madison, chefs must contend with a tricky mixture of liberal food politics, a desire to follow big-city trends, and a sometimes stubborn streak of Midwestern conservatism. This combination can lead to inspiration and frustration in equal measure, and failure to correctly calibrate it can lead to disaster. The concept of Kushi Muramoto, for example, was merely too simple - rice bowls and skewers. "I don't think the town was ready for it," says Muramoto.
For restaurants serving the cuisine of other countries, issues of familiarity and local food culture also play a large role in menu planning. For some diners, Japanese food, even in a fusion setting, is intimidating. Still, Muramoto clearly enjoys the challenge of devising restaurants for the city's diners.
Restaurant Muramoto chef Justin Carlisle knows this audience: "I'm from Sparta, my wife's from Dane."
Carlisle says that in menu planning, the Muramoto style includes looking for "'safe' items, as we call them, chicken and things like that. There's always a potato item on there. How many meat items, how many game items, how many fish items, how many vegetarian? They're all things that we think about while we compose, and we try to get at least one or two on each section of the menu."
This approach results in dishes that combine familiar and unusual elements, like Asian slaw with sesame vinaigrette; braised leg of lamb with preserved bamboo shoots, straw mushrooms and lemongrass; and a strawberry spring roll with honey ginger ice cream. At the Haze, Muramoto and Carlisle's new East/West barbecue joint, customers can even get char-siu pork with a side of fried cheese curds.
Now that's fusion any Madisonian could live with.