As co-owner and executive chef of L’Etoile, Tory Miller’s name is associated with the finest dining in the city.
His new casual Asian American menu at Sujeo, created with executive sous chef Jamie Hoang, is about as far from those delicate plates and amuse-bouches as the two of them can get.
Case in point: togarashi waffle fries ($5). Get ’em Super Extra ($10) with sweet strips of marinated beef and “kim-cheese” sauce, and you’ve basically got the Korean-style nachos from Graze with a base of waffle fries instead of chips. Make these a whole meal, because there’s no way you’ll want stop eating them.
For another example, the fish katsu ($10) is like a McDonald’s fish sandwich went to study abroad overseas and came back with style.
Topped with cabbage slaw, pineapple and a tamarind/Thai chili sauce, the combination is sweet and sour and spicy. The bun smushes onto the crispy fish just like it’s supposed to. The whole thing winks to fast food while securing its status as the best fish sandwich you’ll ever have.
Deja Food Group, which also includes Graze and Estrellon, announced changes at the 4-year-old Sujeo in mid-September.
The announcement came a couple weeks before Frank Productions opened The Sylvee, a music venue a block away across East Washington Avenue. The restaurant wanted to capitalize on the bump in visitors it’s likely to get before Guster or Smashing Pumpkins.
Also, it was time for a change. The noodle bar was empty more often than it should have been, and a faster, more casual menu allowed for reduced staff — finding and keeping employees is a consistent problem for Madison restaurants.
To pick up speed, Sujeo switched to take-a-number counter service (not terribly obvious, as the “counter” still looks like a host stand). Miller and Hoang designed a streamlined digital menu of noodles, sandwiches and fried chicken, designed to prepare people to party.
There’s also a bright new cartoon-style mural by Samie Scott and Sam Johnson, former owner of Firecracker Studios print shop. Between the kitchen and dining room, a little girl slurps noodles and Godzilla stalks the walls with a bottle of Kim Kim Korean hot sauce.
Pastel pink koi swim around graffiti-style letters that say “ASIAN AMERICAN.” One wall even says “FLAMMAÉ,” Sujeo’s favorite Instagram hashtag.
In many ways, this menu takes #latenightnoodlebar specials to prime time. Miller and Hoang have been playing around with these specials for a couple of years.
There have been traditional dishes like coconut curry, chicken khao soi, miso ramen or bún bò Huê (beef noodle soup). Some specials were market-driven, like a bowl of shio ramen with stir-fried eggplant and summer squash or spicy pork noodles with spring asparagus.
Most of the time, the special was whatever the chefs were craving, like a riff on General Tso’s chicken with ddeokbokki (chewy Korean rice sticks), or a kimchi burger with flaming hot Cheetos and gochujang.
The new menu is like late night specials all day long. The kitchen must go through gallons of Kewpie every week.
I started clocking its tangy, umami-boosting effect on everything from those waffle fry “nachos” to a ridiculously decadent ramen burger with pork belly ($12), and I think I get it. There really is no substitute.
Some of the favorites have stayed, like dan dan noodles ($13) and Sujeo ramen ($13) with chewy temomi noodles and pork belly.
A personal favorite, the fried Brussels sprouts ($7) have dinosaur kale in the mix, and the sweet-salty Golden Mountain sauce has kept the flavor profile the same. I’d call this is the single best way to eat Brussels sprouts, except maybe roasted with lots of salt straight out of the oven.
Korean fried chicken ($19) comes as a dinner platter, the chicken fried golden with a lightly crispy crust that will make other versions seem suddenly heavy and bready by comparison. Comforting, melted Chinese collard greens ($4.50) and kid-friendly kimchi mac (fat tubes of chiocciole, $4.50) come on the side but can be ordered on their own, too.
Miller and Hoang have swapped out stone bowls in favor of the adapted bibimbap Miller already has on the menu at Graze.
Chef Tory’s “b-bap” ($14) comes together faster with fried rice cakes, lots of veggies and a slug of spicy gochujang. It’s great right out of the kitchen but save some for the next morning, when the sauce softens the rice but the kohlrabi and carrots are still crunchy. Possibly it’s weird to like cold bibimbap? I’m fine with that.
The lightest thing on the menu, a mashup of the kohlrabi salad at Sujeo 1.0 and a Vietnamese rice noodle salad called bún ($12), tosses a dozen or so veggies with a chili/ peanut vinaigrette and grilled chicken. It’s good, probably better in summer, but could use an extra hit of acid. Although maybe a rice salad just pales when your partner is eating a burger the size of his head with, like, six variations of umami.
Sometimes the shtick of a #sooj dish doesn’t fully translate to something fantastic, and that’s generally fine. The fried “imperial cheese” ($7), super chewy Oaxacan string cheese in egg roll wrappers, made me miss mozzarella sticks, and I don’t actually miss mozzarella sticks.
I also appreciate that Miller and Hoang decided to hook up the Sujeo crowd with some Rush Creek Reserve, Pleasant Ridge’s mushroomy soft-rind cheese ($10). It’s the earliest I’ve ever seen it on a menu and fantastic as always, but I’m not completely sold on the waffle fry/ kimchi pairing.
Despite the take-out friendly format, Sujeo still has a full liquor license. Try pairing the spiciness of the bibimbap with a tiki cocktail, like a lightly creamy Mai Tai ($10) or tropical Painkiller ($10) with rum, pineapple and coconut. As of last week, the Tongue Thai’d ($10) with chili-infused tequila and mango puree is the spiciest it has ever been.
Service at the new Sujeo is faster than it was, and the flavors of most everything on the menu are on point. The #latenightnoodlebar specials will carry on, currently Fridays and Saturdays from 9 p.m. until 1 a.m.
It’s not clear yet if lovers of the old Sujeo with its chicken skin bao and wrap-it-yourself ssam will like the new one just as much. Consider this, then, my strong "yes" vote for super extra waffle fries and the best #wiskorean food around.