A fiery flourish and the rhythmic clanging of utensils on a hibachi grill top livened up a recent lunch on an otherwise wet, dreary day on Madison’s east side.
Inside a former Doolittles Woodfire Grill franchise in one of the outbuildings at East Towne Mall, the new Niji Asian Cuisine has taken advantage of more than 8,000 square feet of space to install four hibachi grill tables, a few of which are always available for lunch.
At Niji, whose name in part comes from the Japanese word “ni” meaning two, owner Amanda Chen combines elements of her other two Madison-area restaurants, the 17-year-old sushi restaurant Takumi and Fugu, a Sichuan spot on West Gilman.
Niji is not a move or rebrand — Takumi has closed for a remodel, but is set to reopen in February.
The story of Niji is inextricably entwined with that of Takumi. Having lived on the east side for more than six years, Chen often found herself looking for nearby Sichuan food. She considered adding Chinese dishes from Fugu’s menu to the Japanese one at Takumi, but found Takumi too small, with no room for more chefs or food storage.
Meanwhile, Takumi amassed a loyal following of repeat customers who come out to the mall, order food and then run errands in the area before picking it up to avoid long wait times, Chen said. In a lot of ways, Niji is for them, offering things they loved about Takumi in a more comfortable, easier to access location.
“Takumi’s hibachi is always busy, but there’s only two tables,” Chen said. “The place is too small. When it’s busy, there’s not enough room. This is such a big space, so we have four hibachi tables. Now we have big reservations.”
Niji allowed Chen to expand the menu with things like poke, a Hawaiian dish, and Japanese ramen. Niji also serves the Sichuan Chinese dishes Chen’s mother taught her, dishes Fugu is known for, alongside the sushi that has kept Takumi busy since 2007.
“We serve everything here (at Niji) — sushi, Japanese food, hibachi, authentic Chinese food, also ramen — it’s good service, good food, there’s no worries about parking. It’s much more convenient,” she said.
Sushi and Sichuan
With large, cushy booths and wood accents everywhere, including the window shades, Niji is a warm and welcoming place to dine.
Finding the right chefs who have experience with the ingredients and dishes is important to Chen. While sushi is about fresh ingredients and presentation, she said, Sichuan dishes require careful cooking temperatures and aren’t easily replicated in large batches.
Lunch bento box options give a chance to sample some of what Niji offers.
In one box, teriyaki shrimp, shumai and a salmon roll ($15.95) showcased a deft hand with sauces and seasoning. The chefs’ talent with sushi and melding flavors shines in the mango lover appetizer ($12.95) where bits of the sweet fruit and lobster combine with a bit of heat.
The 2 in 1 salad ($12.95) has fresh seaweed with spicy crab meat, crunchy panko and masago mixed with an aioli to create an appetizer that tastes fresh and salty without being overwhelmed by the creamy and spicy elements. A colorful “Lake Side” signature roll features crab and avocado with cooked shrimp and an array of caviar ($14.95).
One of Chen’s favorites at Niji is the honey walnut shrimp ($19.95) that comes with a bright ring of crisp broccoli surrounding a pile of tempura fried shrimp and sticky, coated walnuts.
A gregarious, chatty woman, Chen has worked in the restaurant industry since she first came to the United States 26 years ago. She loves the connections she’s able to make and the community that has formed around Takumi that she knows will now extend to Niji.
“I like to meet people and talk to customers and have relationships,” she said. “It’s very social. I’d be bored in an office. It’s not just a job, it makes me happy to make those connections.”
During the pandemic, Chen saw restaurants close. She feels lucky that Fugu and Takumi were not among them.
“All of my employees and customers have stayed with me,” she said. “They are friends. We know their names. The restaurant feels like home … they tell me it feels like their second kitchen.”