A restaurant review and interview with
owner, Shinji Muramoto
(Beautiful food, beautiful eating -- a great ambassador
to Japanese culture)
by Sharyl Kato
My mom came in to visit me from Chicago, along with relatives from Hawaii, and I took them to Muramoto's. As background information, my
mother has a tendency to share her food with others at the table, even when ordering individual dishes, NOT family style in a restaurant. I don't
know if this is cultural, boundary issues, or generosity, but my point is, when she ordered her dish at Muramoto's and we asked her how it was,
she responded with "Hmmmm ... hmmmm" Japanese sounds (well actually those are pretty universal sounds) and she raised her arms to
cover and "guard" her dish, indicating she was not interested in sharing her meal with any of us. A true test of quality.
Walking into the restaurant, whether stepping in from a bright sunny day for lunch, or coming in from a bustling night out in the evening, you
are greeted warmly and you see the many bottles of sÃ¡ke displayed that add beautiful color to the wall above the bar. Muramoto has the largest
sÃ¡ke menu in the Midwest, an especially impressive status given the challenges of having to purchase most selections from distributors in
The restaurant offers a variety of seating styles such as the area near the entrance where you can dine at low tables while sitting on
comfortable sofas. The rest of the seating spans along a long narrow room, kind of New York style, with tables and chairs along one side and a
long eating bar (my favorite) on the other. Matte-black walls, warm wood, stone and ceramic surfaces with clean-line designs create a warm, but
cool (as in chic cool) environment that facilitates both lively conversation and intimacy.
Almost anywhere you sit, you can see several of the skilled, focused chef assistants preparing culinary dishes. However, sitting at the bar is
where you can observe from front row seats. I must say, it is a zen-like experience watching them prepare each beautiful dish.
I dine out frequently and am familiar with most restaurants in the area, so I appreciate the consistency of exceptional quality, uniqueness, and
true gourmet dining at Muramoto's. One goes away feeling extremely satisfied and having received "more" than what he/she paid for. Your
senses say "thank you" for giving them such delicate taste treats that contrast and balance superbly with one another in a texture that you can
taste, see, and feel. Ahhh, the taste of fish broiled, grilled, or steamed to perfection -- tender ... moist ... the ever so thin, crisp outside edges and
melt-in-your-mouth balance of natural flavors.
A good test of a restaurant is to bring friends and family who are self-confessed sushi snobs, (not me of course) and Asian fusion
aficionados, from all over the U.S., including San Francisco, New York, Washington state, Washington D.C., and the international scene for that
matter. When they come here to Madison and visit Restaurant Muramoto, they are truly impressed.
An interview with Shinji Muramoto
I attribute the high standard of quality to the owner and master chef, Shinji Muramoto, who I had the pleasure of interviewing for Asian
Wisconzine. Shinji, despite his boyish face, has the wisdom, skill, and many years of experience and patience in both business and culinary arts
-- the necessary ingredients to be successful. Despite his hip blond-tipped hairstyle and modern, progressive sense of culinary art, he is patient
and grounded in his traditional Japanese philosophy and work ethic. And despite Shinji's shy and quiet presence, he appears open and
confident, demonstrating considerable initiative and perseverance. These are essential qualities in a business where three out of four
restaurants fail in their first years.
Shinji was born in Sapporo, Japan and attended Tokyo College part-time for three years while also cooking part-time as a student. In October
1992, he came to Madison to attend Edgewood College School of Business, with the intention of going back to Japan. He began helping a friend
cook at a local favorite sushi restaurant, Wasabi, on State Street. Six months after working there part-time, Wasabi had new owners and the
restaurant became much improved. Shinji was offered a full-time position there, in order to gain his green card more expeditiously. Shinji worked
at Wasabi, full-time, for eight years. It took him four years to earn his green card, which he thought would take only two years. Shinji, meanwhile,
also served as chef on weekends at Restaurant Magnus.
In April 2000, Opus, an upscale lounge offering a light food menu, opened on King St. in Madison. The enterprise was then owned by the
owners of Wasabi. Shinji began working at Opus as well, creating their menu. In the meantime, Shinji was developing a special project to open
his own restaurant in what was then the Buy & Sell Shop. Eventually, that project fizzled out and in 2002, Shinji decided to return to Japan, stayed
there for four months working at authentic Japanese restaurants. He also spent that time eating at different Tokyo restaurants, something he felt
was the very best way to learn about owning and running a restaurant. This was the first time he had been back to Japan in eight years.
Fortunately for us, Shinji returned to Madison, looking for space to start his own restaurant. In the Fall of 2003, the deal was sealed and Shinji
recalls this being a very special, happy, and significant date. Muramoto's doors opened in February 2004 in its present location at 106 King Street.
Shinji recalls that it took two full months of very hard work to renovate the space. He and three other friends did all the work. I was impressed to
learn of the tight network of support that develops among restaurant owners and staff, including chefs, apprentices, hosts, and wait staff. He
sees this network as the key to success. Folks such as Robert Hughes and Julie Sternal, who currently run their own great restaurant,
Serendipity, just outside Madison in Cambridge (open 10-10 Wed thru Sunday, live music Thursday/Saturday and a treat very well worth the trip),
are two of them. Robert, at the time, was working with Shinji and instrumental in helping to design and physically renovate the restaurant.
When I asked Shinji how he manages to maintain quality and consistency in his food preparation, he said that it is difficult to do, but he tries to
prepare, in advance, as much as he can in large quantities, such as sauces, made up fresh (he has over 30), that can be easily and artfully
applied from squeeze bottles. There are trays of freshly growing sprouts/greens that are hand-picked, so it is hard to imagine how you can get
much fresher than that.
Maintaining and training quality staff is another important factor. Shinji says he has good chefs and staff. A challenge for him has been to
adapt to the role of an employer. There are significant cultural differences in the structure, role, and relationship between an employer and
employee here in the U.S. compared to Japan, as well as work environment expectations. Another challenge for Shinji is finding time away from
the restaurant, to be with his wife, Kimiko, who is from Kyoto, Japan, and their new baby, Kai, born July 28, 2006 at 6 pounds 9 ounces! Shinji
describes Kimiko as a significant support and mentor, so needed in a tough business.
As far as rewards from his work, Shinji describes the joy of meeting people through the restaurant, both customers and others in the
business. He feels strongly that the key to success is the tight network and support among other restaurant owners and staff. He is also excited
to have the opportunity to expose westerners to Asian fusion cooking and sees this as a way to build bridges to introduce people to authentic
Japanese cooking and Japanese culture.
One of the ways he likes to relax is to eat out at other restaurants. Some of Shinji's favorites in Japan are the River Oriental restaurants in
Kyoto and Tokyo. Closer to Madison, Shinji enjoys the Harvest Restaurant, as well as Lombardinos and Serendipity.
Shinji's parents have visited him in Madison, as have his two younger brothers. One brother lives in Georgia and the other in Taiwan; neither is
in the restaurant business.
I noted a twinkle in Shinji's eye when I asked him about possible future projects or expansion of his restaurant. As far as this writer is
concerned, I cannot wait to see what new developments Shinji Muramoto has in store.
Restaurant Muramoto is located at 106 King Street, Madison.
|MURAMOTO MENU DELIGHTS
The menu is creative, Asian fusion at its best and yet very reasonably priced. Dishes are presented in generous
tapas style, just-right portions with the highest cost at $15. There are generally two soup selection, such as Satusuma
Bisque or Miso Soup with Tofu and Spinach and 8-10 choices for COLD/SALAD, such as Oyster Shot: Hamahama (I
just like saying that) Oysters in Ponzu Sauce, garnished with Chili Daikon Relish and Quail Egg; or their popular Asian
Slaw with mizuna, red and yellow peppers, red cabbage, fried wonton croutons and sesame dressing (texture is
amazing and taste is addictive). There are also about a half-dozen selections of sushi style ROLLS including Duck,
Mango and Avocado roll with duck reduction (one of my favorites); or Soft Shell Crab roll with a tangy ginger scallion
sauce; and for connoisseurs, Tuna with Wasabi, Flying Fish Roe, with spicy sauce and masago mayonnaise.
And there are about a dozen selections from the HOT menu including Asian Lamb Stew or Grilled Miso Black Cod
served with baby bok choy (the latter is definitely one of my favorites, emanating many sounds from me while eating).
Other hot selections include Pan Seared Scallops with mashed Satsuma, chanterelle, black trumpet and lobster
mushrooms in a garlic butter soy sauce, as well as a Beef Tenderloin Skewer with spicy napa cabbage, or a Roasted
Pork Tenderloin dish with miso mustard and chevre stuffed poached pear (Are you drooling yet? Well, I am just writing
about it). Generally, a few regular specials are introduced and added to the menu.
And then ... DESSERTS!! Just when you think you are all hmmmm'd out ...Their ice cream du jour is fun, honey
ginger, black sesame Â… oh, and a Strawberry Spring Roll, or Jasmine Tea Milk Pudding or a Kabocha CrÃ¨me
Brulee. The popular Dessert Sample Platter includes all of these as well as a Chocolate Cake.
And then ... every Sunday is the Chef's Tasting Dinner, a 4-course dinner for $30, from 5 to 9 p.m. This special day is
growing in popularity and getting there early to ensure seating is recommended. Fresh, locally grown, in-season
select ingredients allow an opportunity for Shinji and his staff to improvise and create totally new and different
masterpieces. It's a special treat I had the pleasure of enjoying with a party of six.
Hmmmm ... Hmmmmmmmm ... Hmm ... Hmm ... Hmm ... Yep, these are the soulful sounds I
make when eating at Restaurant Muramoto. And, yes, it is the very Japanese thing to do when
food tastes, smells, feels, and looks beautiful -- the ultimate compliment. The louder the sounds,
the more flattering and appreciative to those who prepared the meal.