The newest Takara, this one in Middleton, is absolutely exquisite, its atmosphere as impressive as VIP’s, another elaborate sushi restaurant that opened in 2014.
Takara’s interior is less flashy and more refined than VIP’s, which to Midwestern tastes can seem like a slice of Vegas.
Brian Ni, who opened the Middleton Takara 88 with his wife, Erica Ni, and sister, Jeanne Ni, in December, transformed the space from its short life as Pasta Nuovo.
The Italian restaurant, which lasted six months in the Cayuga Street location, just off University Avenue, was also notable for its ambiance. It seems wasteful to scrap all the hard work that went into that remodel, but it’s an entirely different genre of cuisine, and that’s the disposable society we live in.
The circular dining room has been scrubbed of its inlaid murals of the Italian countryside, and is brighter and more contemporary. The different notes of green are fresh and inviting, and a curved banquette in the center of the room almost completes a circle, sheltering a big, oval table that can seat 12.
“There’s very good feng shui in here. It’s very soothing,” said one of my companions.
Happily, the food is equal to the environment. I’ve long been a fan of the State Street Takara, which opened in 2001, and the Whitney Way location, which came on board in 2006. What we encountered on a recent visit to Takara 88 trumps my experiences with the other two, and part of that may owe to the beautiful surroundings.
We started with an order of half-price shumai ($2.50, the happy hour price between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday). The six soft, little steamed shrimp dumplings barely tasted of shrimp and were largely unimpressive.
What blew our minds was the “fried spider” ($7.95), crispy, deep-fried soft shell crab. The shells were remarkably unobtrusive, the batter light and tasty. There were four pieces of crab and three of us. When I told my companions to go ahead and split the last one they were thrilled.
A final appetizer, konoge ($4.50), was a hit with two of us, at least. Four fried potato cakes had a few odd corn kernels and were delightfully creamy inside. They came with a thick and salty katsu sauce, which is like a Japanese barbecue sauce.
As if we didn’t order enough fried food already, a companion got the Takara tempura ($17.95), a virtual smorgasbord of richly battered shrimp, scallops, mock crab, whitefish and vegetables.
The elongated shrimp were highly textured, the piece of whitefish generous, the scallops tender, and the vegetables varied. The tempura sauce, also served with the soft-shell crab, is homemade and was particularly good.
As worthy was the sushi and sashimi combo ($23.95), which was so large one of my friends assumed I had ordered the two-person version. The sashimi was the best part, especially the tender salmon and the silky white fish. The tuna was a bit mealy, and the surf clam slightly rubbery. In terms of the nigiri, it was mostly first-rate, but with one piece of squid that was tough to the point of being inedible.
Along for the ride was an inspired California roll, if you can call a California roll inspired. It was larger than most, and stuffed with imitation crab salad, instead of the usual little nub.
The sushi platter and tempura plate were served with either salad or miso soup. Both are good choices. I’ve long appreciated the ginger dressing on Takara’s iceberg salad, and the addition of seaweed to the soup, which also contains small cubes of tofu and scallions.
The menu boasts 22 special rolls and we selected the Badger ($14.95), with fried lobster, cucumber, avocado, asparagus, and piled high with a mound of grated mock crab. It was fine, but in the future I might stick to a cheaper roll with less going on.
The main plates and platters were visually stunning. Food has rarely looked better. Toward the end of the meal one friend said, “It’s going to be hard to criticize this, isn’t it?”
That’s true, to some degree. My biggest complaint about Takara 88 was that the pickled ginger had an unpleasantly strong flavor. I don’t remember that being an issue at either of the other Takaras.
The first Japanese restaurant in Middleton, Takara 88 is so named because the number eight is considered lucky in Japanese culture, and when doubled, it’s twice as lucky.
The friends I dined with decided to go back two nights later, and when they texted to invite me along it’s like they had read my mind.