The 'Roof Party Viral Pop' looks like a tame, fruity cocktail –– but packs a powerful Everclear punch.
"I have a theory that when people here in Madison go out to get Asian food, whether it's Thai or Lao or Viet or Chinese, everybody has their one thing that they always get," says Chef Tory Miller, on the eve of the grand opening of his new restaurant, Sujeo. "I wanted to take all of those things for me -- my favorites -- and make them with really good ingredients."
Miller fans will recognize his touch the second they walk in the door, which hosted a soft opening dinner service Saturday evening. Diners are greeted by a painted map of Wisconsin that offers an Asian flair to the iconic farm vendor directory at L'Etole and Graze, the chef's two restaurants on Capitol Square.
There was no question of applying a farm-to-table philosophy to the new Asian fusion eatery on the first floor of Constellation building, located by Star Bar on East Washington Avenue. "When you spend so much time and effort getting to know farmers and working with really good ingredients, you can't really go backwards," explains Miller. "Every time I go out for a bowl of noodles, I'm like, oh man, this is going to be good, but I know this beef is from somewhere random. It’s hard to just forget about your values."
Starting Wednesday, Sept. 3, Sujeo will be open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and dinner 4:30-10 p.m. An accompanying "noodle bar" will be open from 2-10 p.m., with a late-night food menu served Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays until bar time, allowing downtown and near east side diners to satisfy their dan dan (fried beef noodle) or egg roll fix. The restaurant will be closed Tuesdays, and a dim sum brunch is being planned for later this year.
Menu items like General Tso Livers (which gives sweetbreads the classic General Tso deep-fry and sauce treatment) and Japchae (sweet potato noodles) with small-farm beef exemplify the innovative Wisconsin foodie take on Asian classics that Miller has hinted at in dishes like Graze's popular bibimbap.
"Local farmers are growing things like kaffir lime leaves and Korean mint," Miller says, asked if his culinary influence in Madison has inspired the vendors he supports to expand their gardens. "We can't get seaweed and that sort of stuff, sure, but we can get all the beef for pho and meatballs right here in Wisconsin."
Miller is adapting Asian favorites featuring ingredients that aren't grown locally, like papaya salad, to Wisconsin agriculture. "That's one of my favorite dishes, and what we do here is a kohlrabi salad with daikon and carrots," he says.
Sujeo's interior is a playful mix of Asian kitsch and hip downtown bar. Miller's tattoo artist, Jack Ozimek of Eldritch Brothers, created eye-catching images of dragons, bicycles, and noodle-eating cats for a decor that looks like Alice in Wonderland meets Afro Samurai. Look for the pixelated Godzilla and Chinese dragon images by illustrator Andy Rash on the bathroom walls, one of Miller's personal favorite touches.
A ceiling-high and backlit bar, offset by the Constellation's modern staircases behind the restaurant, offers diners an unsurprisingly well curated beer lineup that includes both craft items from in and out of state and popular imports like Pacifico and Sapporo. A creative selection of cocktails -- "Yup In My White Tea" and "Roof Party Viral Pop" are among the more memorable drink names concocted by bar manager Jeff Spear, who promises that sake will be offered in due course.
The short-order-style noodle bar next to the dining area will have its own offerings, including chicken soup, fried chicken, and banh mi, while the main dining area features hot pot tables and plenty of space for large groups, facilitating communal dining.
"My favorite way to eat is to order almost everything and share it," says Miller.
Simultaneously hitting the niches of sexy date-night food, luxurious drunk Asian fusion, and "chef-y snacks" inspired by the street food restaurant staff love to eat after a long night in the kitchen, Sujeo is set to attract foot traffic to the Constellation building in the up-and-coming Capitol East District. Indeed, its sneak peek service Saturday night saw eager young people lining up outside and shooting selfies before the doors opened. Families and industry food and beverage professionals soon followed.
Miller says he's not as concerned with so-called authentic Asian cuisines as he is with making all-around great dishes.
"I'm adopted, raised in Racine by a German family. 'Authenticity' has always kind of bothered me," he laughs. "To me, if you showed up at L'Etoile a few years ago and saw an Asian-American guy with a mohawk and a German last name serving French food, would that be authentic food? Or just good food?"