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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fair
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Restaurant Muramoto pushes the boundaries with a new izakaya menu
King Street kitchen delivers some of the most exciting food in town
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A classic part of Japanese cuisine.
Credit:Paulius Musteikis

When Shinji Muramoto opened his original restaurant at 106 King St. in 2004, it was already a full decade after the Nobu-led Japanese-fusion phenomenon had begun. It was also the year David Chang launched Momofuku Noodle Bar and George W. Bush beat John Kerry.

In a space that had previously been a hot dog stand, a rather louche-feeling restaurant appeared offering dishes few Madisonians had experienced before. It was immediately Madison's sexiest address, leaving reviewers agog even at the bathrooms (they were stunning bathrooms).

Muramoto's opening signaled the dawn of a golden King Street era, and diners quaffed quail-egg-oyster-ponzu shooters, downing sake while nibbling at immaculate maki. There was even a version of Nobu's signature dish, miso black cod. It was as if, finally, the urban future had arrived. And in a way it had: Downtown's other game-changer, Sardine, would appear two years later, and Shinji Muramoto would go on to create Hilldale as a dining destination, open 43 North with Justin Carlisle, and eventually (in '08) move his restaurant to its current location at 225 King St., doubling its size.

But something about the heart-thumping genius of the intimate original was lost, and it did not help the Muramoto brand that two subsequent attempts to create another hit at the 106 address both failed: Kushi Bar and the Haze.

Some of the trouble with these concepts can be ascribed to Muramoto's restless pushing of Madison dining boundaries. Even now, at the Hilldale location, the chef serves shiokara — squid fermented in its own viscera — because he wants to, not because it sells.

Authenticity may be applauded in Madison, but it's not necessarily rewarded. When Kushi Bar and the Haze opened, diners may not have been ready for casual, traditional Japanese bar snacks or a fusion-BBQ matrix.

But now, to mark the 10th anniversary of Restaurant Muramoto (and the mini-empire in general), the chef is pushing against the comfort zone again. There's a new menu that claims to pay homage to the original King Street space, but really is a return to the izakaya style (a sort of Japanese gastropub) attempted at Kushi.

The result, for the cosmopolitan diner the restaurant clearly hopes to attract, is thrilling. The fusion-sushi menu is still intact, and delivers the classics, but alongside it are dishes with a renewed sense of adventure. And this time, response seems to be positive enough that what began as a one-off anniversary menu will continue on for the foreseeable future.

The menu, which arrives as a monstrously sized placemat, is conveniently divided between grilled, raw, skewers, fried, etc., for easy navigation, allowing diners to zero in on particular preparations or choose items from each for diversity.

The first ostensibly outré item is the beef tongue, marinated in miso. As if to underline the uphill battle the restaurant faces in this market, the waiter described it with enthusiasm but also with a bit of hopeful and doubtful reticence — would we like it? There was no doubt: It's perfectly seared tender slices, with the tongue's usual slight sourness offset by nearly-sweet miso. It's everything you hope filet mignon will be but rarely is, with a welcome added complexity.

Less adventurous maybe, but certainly a sign of how comfortable the kitchen is with more traditional combinations, are the mussels. A broth of sake and soy with sweet Chinese sausage as well as fermented black beans works perfectly. There's even a little heat from the residual alcohol, making the mussels a part of a delicate and clean-tasting soup that is creative, comforting and shockingly well balanced.

Fusion fun is still present in dishes like the walleye tempura. Standing in for traditional Wisconsin fish fry are tender hunks of what may be the tastiest freshwater fish, served on a bed of yuzu kosho aioli (it's a concoction made with the peel of the yuzu fruit; think slightly citrusy, vegetal mayo) and eel sauce. It's a playful twist on the familiar state meal, and, I daresay, better than the original.

Muramoto recently sent sous chef Matt Morris to Japan to pick up a few techniques, and he returned with a delicate version of snapper head, probably the poster-child dish of this menu overhaul. Fish head is a classic part of Japanese cuisine, where no part of the animal goes to waste, involving the entire fish head often in a small amount of broth. Sometimes this approaches a salty kind of glaze, heavy on soy, but Morris' calm version is subtle and profound.

Western diners have a problem with anything staring back at them on a plate, and this dish does have eyeballs. On fish, these have the texture of a stale gummy bear without a lot of flavor. But the point isn't the eye, it's that the head is the best part of the fish. The delicate, sweet cheeks and collar here are the stars.

This new menu shows a kitchen that, under longtime executive chef Brett Olstadt, is eager to demonstrate just how creative, technique-driven and urbane it has become, and it is preparing some of the city's most exciting food. The question is, will Madison diners sit down to appreciate it?

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