Here's a one-second guide to what's worth eating in Madison, for incoming students with serious palates. For Italian go to Lombardino's; for Japanese, Wasabi or Sushi Muramoto; for steak, Tornado or Smoky's Club; for bagels and sandwiches, Gotham Bagels; for a reliable, scenic brasserie, Sardine.
And, cutting to the chase, for the flat-out best new restaurant of the year, go to Restaurant Muramoto, and for a simple reason. This is the only restaurant that has opened in Madison since, well, Sardine that offers a serious, chef-driven kitchen. And that means you're not going to get a clunky, factory-line, pandering imitation of what some entrepreneur thought would pass for stylish, crowd-pleasing food (the norm among recent Madison restaurants). You're going to get, instead, Shinji Muramoto's thoughtful, ambitious, creative food - real food - and a lot of drama on the plate.
Anyone who follows the local dining scene could have seen this coming. When Muramoto opened his first, intimate King Street restaurant in 2004, it was an immediate hit. When he followed that with his Sushi Muramoto at Hilldale, the restaurant was one of the anchors of the mall's reinvention. So when the chef moved his original doll-sized restaurant a few blocks down King Street this August to the big space vacated by Cocoliquot (a restaurant partly defeated by that mouthful of a name), expectations were high.
And they are thoroughly justified, despite the space itself - a very big, very brown, oddly institutional room haphazardly strewn with tables that doesn't allow for much intimacy, though at least the huge open kitchen lets you see Muramoto and his team making your dinner. Which is the real show in any case.
And it's a rousing show. You know you're settling in to a serious dinner when the Sakizuke, Muramoto's version of tapas, come out. At $3 for a small (very) plate, these are the most creative one-bite dishes around and an antidote to all those cloddish, oversized bruchettas passing for tapas dished up in all those faux-tapas restaurants.
A true amuse bouche, the pan-seared scallop with curried cream is a delicate but richly flavored mouthful. So is miso-marinated monkfish liver (the livery taste cut by sweet plum sauce), a tiny terrine of braised pork, miso cream cheese and peach, and, maybe best of all, a silky chunk of king crab wearing a truffled béarnaise sauce.
The entree-sized global Onsai, or hot dishes, are just as creative. Muramoto's signature sautéed shrimp in a spicy coconut sauce is as good as it sounds, and so is a supernal lamb curry (a bargain at $13) that features tender lamb tossed with tomato, zucchini, bell peppers and onion, in a dusky, complex, subtle curry. Soy-glazed slices of rare, tender duck (another absolute bargain at $13) come with round steamed buns, so you can build a sandwich, and fried squares of pork belly are tossed with diced watermelon for an impressive tumble of textures and a sweet and salty duet.
Not enough? The kitchen's designer rolls border on high art. The refined duck, mango and avocado roll is a Muramoto signature, as is the spicy tuna and wasabi tobikko roll. But the new deadly catch roll is deadly good, a fiery red roll packed with more velvety king crab then you'd get from a stack of crab legs. Only the gun smoke roll (bacon really doesn't work with maki) was a disappointment.
What else makes Muramoto an instant classic? Very smart, efficient servers who know their menu, an exuberant list of specialty cocktails and sake, and desserts that don't taste like an afterthought. I'd come here for the green tea opera cake alone. But then I'd come back for another taste of almost everything we tried.