For the past three years, Monroe Street’s best bet for sushi rolls has been deconstructed and scooped into bowls at Miko Poke or carried out from the Trader Joe’s.
Now Sequoia, a “ramen sushi lounge” open since June 15 at 1843 Monroe St., makes Japanese-inspired dishes in a dark, attractive space that still looks a lot like its former incarnation as Brocach.
A handful of Yelp reviews have called it “a nice addition” to the city block that includes Bloom Bake Shop, Crescendo Espresso Bar and Music Café and the original Barriques wine shop. In the warm weeks of summer before students returned to campus, Sequoia’s cozy banquettes have been quiet at lunch and dinner, which it serves daily.
Sequoia looks like a smart business move. Young entrepreneur Zhiqiang “Zack” Li owns the place, as well as running Nam’s Noodle and Karaoke Bar nearby on Regent Street. After Brocach closed last December, Li saw an opportunity to do his own restaurant, something Dudgeon-Monroe didn’t already have.
“We have everything here, but we don’t have sushi,” Li said of the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood to the Cap Times last spring. “We want to make it a restaurant where Monroe Street can come sit down … have a nice cup of Asian tea and eat some sushi on the side while chatting with your friends.”
The designer Li hired to remake the interior left a lot of pub behind. There’s still a snug, a little roomlet for private parties, and a Gaelic circle etched in the glass at the end of the bar. Tile on the floor, stripes on the bar stools and even a Bucky Badger chalk mural made the transition from Irish American to Japanese American.
Li spent time in Alhambra near Los Angeles and developed Sequoia’s menu with two chefs he hired from California. Sequoia’s primary focus is the sushi rolls, a few of which have flourishes — the Flaming Volcano ($18) landed on a nearby table literally in flames, a parlor trick stolen from hibachi chefs. Textures on a well-stuffed vegetarian roll ($14) made it a sleeper hit, sweet and crunchy with tamago, sweet potato and cucumber.
Either Sequoia is still dialing in seasoning for the sushi rice or the kitchen assumes people are going to dunk their rolls in soy sauce anyway, so why bother with salt? A precious few rolls tasted well-balanced: the Vilas Sunrise ($15), shrimp tempura and salmon helped along by extra tempura crunch, and a simple roll with yellowtail and avocado ($12).
At dinner, the best things at Sequoia came out right away. Skins on pork gyoza ($7/six) were paper-thin, the filling not too heavy. Sesame oil and seaweed were a winning combination in the usual pre-sushi salad ($6). Chili-spiced edamame with charred garlic ($5), where have you been all my life? The roasted heat makes them such a good snack.
Sometimes simple worked, sometimes it didn’t. Buns ($7/two) had the same flavor profile no matter the filling. Though pork had a bit firmer texture than sweet eel, it was hard otherwise to tell them apart. They, like the three-ingredient salmon skin salad ($7), weren’t good enough to be as basic as they were.
As for the rest of the sushi, Sequoia is going for a slow roll out. Five basic rolls with fillings like avocado, cucumber and imitation crab ($7-$8) can be paired with fish, like salmon, tuna or albacore for $4 extra.
These are fine, and more generous than a Rainbow Roll ($15) that seemed lacking in fish or the sweetish, one-note Mango Tango ($15) with shrimp and dollops of spicy mayo. The Monrose ($14), a pretty pink roll with salmon, escolar and tobiko was better, both in contrast and construction.
The fish sampler is an American sushi restaurant standard, the equivalent of a charcuterie board or antipasti plate. Here, the Nama Special ($28) promises six pieces of nigiri (fish on seasoned rice) and six pieces of sashimi (just raw fish). Sequoia’s version had four pieces each of tuna, salmon and escolar. A couple pieces were weirdly chewy, but either way, three varieties does not a sampler make.
The menu notes that Sequoia’s ramen broth is “simmered in-house over 12 hours daily,” built with mostly pork and a few chicken bones. The result was not quite the fatty, lip-coating broth of some of Madison’s best bowls, perhaps because the noodles soaked up a bunch of it before it got to the table. Some kimchi among the toppings livened everything up with a bit of kick.
I often think of “vegetarian ramen” as the equivalent of “vegan hot dogs” or “almond milk.” The comparison is useful, but you can’t milk an almond, and you can’t make ramen broth without bones. Sequoia’s veggie version of ramen ($12) is made with a mix of vegetables, Chinese cabbage, soybeans and aromatics, like garlic and ginger. Unfortunately, the kindest word I have for it is musty.
Sequoia has Sapporo and Kirin on draft ($5) and a short wine list with some decent choices for whites. Try the A to Z Pinot Gris, $7.50/glass, with any of the rolls. It paired better than the California-made Ozeki “platinum” junmai daiginjo sake ($20 for 300 mL, a good size to split), which was sweeter and not as clean-tasting as I’d hoped.
Li wants to make Sequoia an approachable lunch option, offering a starter (an appetizer, salad or simple roll) with a bowl of ramen for $14.95. The “happiest hour” on weekdays features all-you-can-eat sushi, which should definitely be a draw.
Li opened Sequoia fully staffed, but with students going back to school he’s hiring again. Servers were friendly but green — pacing and menu prep both need attention. If Monroe Street embraces Sequoia the way Li hopes it will, the restaurant should have time to work that out.