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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sushi Galore

Kiku’s fresh fare

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Despite numerous restaurant closings, new options are still arriving for Milwaukee diners. Kiku, which means “chrysanthemum” in Japanese, opened its doors in January. Having operated restaurants like Kyoto, located near Southridge Mall, and Kou You, sited in Elm Grove, owner Peter Zhang is very familiar with the Japanese restaurant business.

Kiku’s building has been creatively remodeled, and what had been a Taco Bell for many years (and, more recently, Aladdin) is now an inviting space to dine. There is a small liquor bar, a sushi bar and dark wooden booths, many of which are next to windows. At night the decor receives a little extra glitz, thanks to sparkling lights behind the bar. The menu is focused on sushi, with many nigiri and maki options. In addition, there are appetizers and entrees of noodles, seafood, tempura and teriyaki—of which there are a dozen different varieties.

The appetizers offer a few departures from the norm. Barbecue mussels ($6.95) include four of the large green-lip variety prepared in a cream sauce. The barbecue dipping sauce resembles a spicy teriyaki sauce. Fried squid with salt and pepper ($8.95) is notable for the quantity and is very similar to a popular Cantonese dish, with squid coated in a light crumb batter. The pepper is largely absent, but there is a side of sweet soy sauce for dipping. Jellyfish salad ($6.95) is quite simple: The jellyfish arrives in short slices, a bit wider than I prefer, and has a pleasant crunchy texture that’s not at all rubbery. The flavors come from sesame seeds and oil, plus the skinned and seeded cucumbers. The simple house salad ($2.50) has the same iceberg lettuce and ginger dressing that permeate Japanese restaurants in this country, but is distinguished by pieces of carrot carved into the shape of butterflies. Presentation remains important.

There are nearly 30 options for nigiri sushi and sashimi a la carte. Familiar choices like tako (octopus), hamachi (yellowtail snapper) and maguro (tuna) are on the menu—all varieties that keep easily, which is why you will find them at supermarkets as well. For a fresher taste, I chose saba (mackerel), suzuki (striped bass) and hotategai (scallop) for $2.75 each. The saba can lend itself to a bad sushi experience unless it is absolutely fresh, but Kiku passed the test on all three for freshness and appearance. The saba and suzuki both have a hint of fishiness, but some of this is to be expected.

There are 50 different maki, or rolled, sushis ($3.50-$14.95) that are organized into four groups: vegetarian, raw, cooked and house specials. A raw version of squid, avocado and tobiko ($7.95) is worth ordering. It is a reverse roll with the rice outside of the seaweed; the raw squid is surprisingly tender and the tobiko (smelt roe) retains its familiar crunch.

While sushi is the main attraction, also consider the tempura. Zhang’s former restaurant, Kyoto, excels at it, and his latest restaurant continues the tradition. Try the shrimp tempura ($14.95), a plate with six extra-long shrimp arranged in the shape of a cone. The batter is perfect, feather-light with no trace of cooking oil, and the assorted battered vegetables are just as good. The steamed rice has a sprinkle of sesame seeds; miso soup and a small house salad are also included as starters.

Only time will tell whether Kiku can thrive in an increasingly crowded market, but there are a number of positive signs. The location is good, as is the menu. Lunches offer a conservative business-like atmosphere, while the evenings attract a younger, more animated crowd that enjoys specialty drinks at the bar. A good time to visit is Monday evenings, when many items are offered at reduced prices, including the shrimp tempura.


Kiku 202 W. Wisconsin Ave. (414) 270-1988 $$-$$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoke-free Handicap Access: Yes

Kiku | Photos by Shepherd Staff