Paulius Musteikis Photos
The hot pot has ingredients that change daily.
Asian food has boomed in the last decade. There are not only simply more Asian restaurants in the U.S., but high-profile chefs have found inspiration in Asian flavors to create newfangled fusion cuisines. Chicago's Yusho serves bold yakatori-inspired dishes; Mission Chinese in New York mashes Chinese food with Jewish American items like pastrami; and at A-Frame in Los Angeles, Roy Choi splatters the menu with whatever influences he likes -- Thai clam chowder or seaweed kettle corn, anyone?
In a way, Sujeo (pronounced sue-joh) hews close to this hip, big-city Asian-y restaurant formula by capturing a multitude of spice combinations alongside fun nods to lowbrow or local culture like broasted chicken, mac 'n' cheese, Pabst and custard. But there's a big difference -- the menu isn't all mash-ups or new creations. It's a bevy of traditional dishes from multiple countries, offered with an eye toward reasonable fidelity.
Authenticity is a tricky notion. There are those who believe that unless you grew up with a cuisine you can't properly execute it. Let's call this the grandma theory. Your granny wasn't Korean? Forget ever making credible kimchi.
Most chefs I've talked to do not subscribe to this theory, for the simple reason that it isn't true. Take Andy Ricker of Pok Pok (Portland, Brooklyn), slinging some of the tastiest Thai food you'll ever eat. Or Rick Bayless, who is one heck of a Mexican cook, whether the food is traditional or not. Race and class politics aside, the question simply becomes, is the cooking good?
Likewise, appetizers -- which, again, range all over the place ethnically -- are thoughtfully executed. A Sichuan beef tongue and tripe salad is bright and fresh, with the tripe acting as a sweet foil to the red onions and sour tongue. If you've ever been curious (or squeamish) about tongue and tripe, you won't get a cleaner-tasting version than this. And the salt and pepper squid, which is often a heavy dish and one to avoid, is well prepared, providing crunch while remaining light.
The written menu could do a better job of helping navigate the big smorgasbord, though. For instance, it's not always clear which items will arrive with banchan, the little fleet of Korean pickles and other treats.
Similarly, chef Miller offers daily changing special ingredients in the bibimbap, the hot pot and the ssäm (wraps), but waitstaff have to talk diners through them, and sometimes forget to mention them. How about a chalkboard?
Because the menu is an idiosyncratic list of what Miller loves from Asian cuisine, there can also be surprises. If you're unfamiliar with shio ramen (aka salt ramen), you may find the thin broth and whole-wheat noodles peculiar. But the noodles, shipped in from Sun Noodles, are spectacular and soak up duck and pork fat nicely. Sometimes, the idiosyncrasy means that broths and sauces aren't exactly in line with expectations, either; the nuoc cham for the bún, the hot pot broth, the sauces for the broasted chicken and the pho broth aren't always flavorful enough or may be too sticky, salty or acidic.
The noodle bar, which is like a restaurant within the restaurant, is tucked around a sharp corner from all three entrances and sports an abbreviated menu. Here, diners can sit and watch the kitchen at work. Only four of the restaurant's beers are listed on the noodle bar menu, but the full drinks menu is available (although we weren't made aware of this on a recent visit). Still, the drinks menu overall can seem like a missed opportunity. It would be nice to see a big selection of, say, Rieslings, sojus, or even sakes.
Prices may make some wallets snap shut. Bún, a Vietnamese rice vermicelli dish that arrives beautifully manicured, clocks in at $16, a tough price-point, even with a local-ingredient ethos.
Yes, Sujeo is a mash-up of two trends: the Asian food boom and farm-to-table. These two defining movements of the past decade are conjoined in a lively and capable embrace, brought together to introduce Madison diners to a lengthy list of beloved Asian dishes. Prepared with a chef-driven sensibility in an upbeat, unfussy environment, it's a formula for success. Expect top-notch service, and don't forget to enjoy a custard twist cone.