The “V” roll has spicy tuna, crab, avocado and, yes, caviar.
The first impression is of curves. Curves are carved into the window frames, built into archways and worked into doors at the third Takara restaurant, Middleton’s Takara 88. Its centerpiece is a round table under an enormous circular drop ceiling. This gorgeous room, designed by Aro Eberle Architects, offers a variety of seating areas: private tables in alcoves, a banquet room for large groups and a spacious outdoor patio. The choice is easy, though: I always sit at the sushi bar and watch the chefs.
There can be delays in orders from the sushi bar if it’s very busy, but that’s the nature of an exacting art form. The chefs stay calm even in the teeth of a mad lunchtime rush, slicing fatty tuna and drizzling mirin reductions on shimmering ruby-red fish flesh. The servers seems to speak little English, but this turns out not to be much a problem; they know the menu and glide in and out taking orders, whisking plates away and placing piping-hot green tea unobtrusively on the table.
The far west side has taken to Takara 88 for suit-and-tie power lunches and intimate tête-à-têtes. Battered and deep-fried oysters arrive on a bed of lettuce with a ramekin of ponzu sauce for dipping. These little guys are addictive and get gobbled. The “sushi lunch” special arrives on an elongated plate, the traditional pickled ginger and wasabi anchoring one end and a sliced California roll with crab, avocado and cucumber spread out across the other. In the center are four nigiri, choice cuts of fish (ruby-red ahi tuna, pale pink salmon, white fluke, and glazed-orange shrimp) fastened to sticky rice with a strip of nori. Miso soup with tofu and scallions or side salad (worth trying for the house-made ginger dressing) is included too.
The $9 lunchtime udon is another solid deal. An immense bowl of thick noodles and aromatic soup is set beside a tray of tempura shrimp (or grilled chicken), sweet potatoes, mushrooms and small carafe of soy. However, the grilled hibachi steak (you can also order chicken or shrimp, and maybe should) lunch is disappointing: cubed steak and white rice with a bland assortment of mushrooms and peppers, wanting soy sauce.
At dinner, green tea, sake or a cold bottle of Sapporo with a bowl of miso soup is the right way to start. Kumamoto live oysters, bluefin tuna belly (toro) and sea urchin (uni), all available by the piece, are authoritative starters.
Along with the usual assortment of hand rolls and futomaki, the menu boasts the more unusual roe-wrapped Spicy Spider (a deep-fried roll with soft-shell crab, avocado, and cucumber) and glistening Rainbow (tuna, salmon, shrimp) rolls. Fantastic Roll pairs spiced tuna, crabmeat, eel and avocado. These are all good, and the sashimi menu has an especially tasty anago (saltwater eel) and ika (squid).
Specials follow the Takara template: innovative, whimsical and expensive rolls that invoke dragons or tigers and involve salmon roe, sea eel, hard-shell crab and crispy deep-fried tempura. Spring Roll is a playful sushi roll that takes off on the Thai appetizer. The Atlantic Roll is salmon, avocado, jalapeño, cucumber, spicy tuna, roe and escolar. The “V” roll is spicy tuna, crab, avocado, caviar and asparagus wrapped in rice paper. Spicy salmon rolled with avocado and melting cream cheese is deep fried and lavishly slathered with tiny orange tobiko flying fish roe in the sensational Spicy Salmon roll.
The biggest shock (the good kind) comes at the end of the night with dessert: the chocolate Napoleon, frosted with an inset of embossed gold leaf candy cap. The filling, chocolate mousse instead of cream, is encircled with marbled white and dark chocolate, which breaks upon forking in and produces slivers of candy.
A rising tide of culinary excellence in Dane County is lifting all boats, and the new Takara’s beautiful, subdued room, quietly efficient service and fresh sushi is a testament to how quickly our expectations and execution have ramped up.
Takara 88, 1900 Cayuga St., Middleton, 608-203-8866; takara88.com, $2-$24; 11 am-2:30 pm and 4:30 pm-10 pm Mon.-Thurs., 11 am-2:30 pm and 4:30 pm-10:30 pm Fri.-Sat., noon-9:30 pm Sun.