As an inveterate fan of the pun -- the writerly love that dare not speak its name -- I fully expected Chef Tory Miller (Graze, L'Etoile) to dip into that well in naming his forthcoming restaurant in the Constellation building on East Washington and Livingston. L'Etoile means 'the star,' Constellation...it was too obvious. So props to Miller for sticking to what the restaurant itself will be about, and not focusing on just the building it'll be in.
The pan-Asian restaurant will be named Sujeo, pronounced SUE-joh, after the Korean term for a complete set of chopsticks and spoon. I met with Miller at L'Etoile to discuss his plans for the space and the service at Sujeo.
"We're finishing our design process now, and we're down to our two bids to build it," Miller said. (The opening date still to be determined, but it is estimated as July 1 on city documents.) I asked about carrying through the style on display in new neighbors Cargo Coffee and the Star Bar, and he said he plans on doing his own thing. "Just like here, it's a big glass building, but the difference here (at L'Etoile) is...we're inviting you to look outside, saying, Enjoy the view."
But while the architecture and aesthetic at L'Etoile and Graze is understated, to give preference to the sights on the other side of the glass, Sujeo will have a more evocative interior style. "We want you to feel like you are in a space that could be anywhere else," he told me. In other words, the BP gas station and MG&E power plant are not expected to be visual draws.
The four zones of Sujeo will be main dining area, full-service bar, outdoor patio (warm-weather only), and an open-kitchen noodle bar. This last section seems to be Miller's baby, the area where he says he hopes eventually to do late-night service as well as a sort of restaurant within a restaurant -- Miller cites the relationship between Roberta's and Blanca in Brooklyn as inspiration -- where he can serve more experimental tasting menus occasionally. From the onset, it'll be the no-frills service section for those who want to dine and go.
The bar, he says, "is gonna be focused on doing really good cocktails, of course. I'm not saying 'craft cocktails,' because I really dislike that term," Miller said. "Maybe 'thoughtful cocktails'? Everything with soju in it." That last bit was said with a grin, so maybe take that with a few grains of salt.
Sujeo's liquor license will be up for discussion before the Madison Common Council's Alcohol License and Review Committee meeting this Wednesday, and in the documents filed for that meeting, Miller described some of the details of Sujeo's operation. As previous news coverage has highlighted, there will be Korean barbecue and ramen, as well as a highly-anticipated dim sum weekend brunch. Referencing the Wisconsin setting, he has also acquired a broaster for making Korean fried chicken. "The 'KFC,' as I'm calling it. It's gonna be this awesome chicken dinner situation happening."
There will be a lot of tabletop and tableside activity as well, including hot pot, but the ventilation needs of real live tabletop Korean barbecue proved too expensive to support ("a serious pain in the ass"); instead, there will be what Miller describes as a "faux wood burner, as a grill." Multi-component dishes like that Korean barbecue ssam, as well as pork tonkatsu (not to be confused with tonkotsu, a ramen preparation), will come out on trays for the diner to assemble to individual preference.
"Because it is gonna be pan-Asian, we're going to have a pho, we'll have a jjamppong" -- a spicy Korean stew -- "we're gonna have ramen." Here he referenced the menu sprawl that tends to occur at typical pan-Asian restaurants as what Sujeo will not be doing. "'Here's our pho section,' and it's twelve kinds of 'em. I go there and I get the same thing every time because I found what I like. So we're just going to one kind of everything"
There will be house-made noodles, and the kind of pro-local sourcing that L'Etoile exemplifies will be in effect with Sujeo's meats and some year-round produce. But like the more casual Graze, the emphasis won't be as strict due to the particular needs of an Asian-specific menu.
After all, how unflinchingly high-minded can you be when the one and only dessert you're going to offer is soft-serve frozen custard? "When I was a kid growing up, we (almost) never went out for dinner, but if we did, we'd go out and get, like, pizza, as a family," Miller said. "And then afterwards, we'd go to get frozen custard. I just grew up that way. Even still now, I love what we do at L'Etoile and Graze, and going to Nostrano or Papavero and getting really good, yummy desserts. But oftentimes, especially when I eat a bowl of pho, I'm like, man, you know what? I just want an ice cream cone. So we're gonna have two flavors and a twist, that's it."
A James Beard Award-winner, Miller said he's been asked about how he would define success at Sujeo. "I'd be lying if I said, as an adopted Korean-American, that (success would be) having 'real Asians' come in, sit down, and eat my food, and be like, 'Oh man, so good. Shio ramen, awesome. The pho, awesome.'"
"I hate the word 'authentic,' I really hate it, so I don't think about it in that regard. I'm not trying to be like, 'I'm making really authentic pan-Asian food, bro!' That's not what I'm trying to do. I'm just trying to make really good food." He said he wants Sujeo to remove the "intimidation factor," as he puts it, from the types of Asian food that aren't as familiar to the average diner as an egg roll or pad Thai.
"I'm excited," Miller told me. "I can't wait."