Tavernakaya

Kai Kuo and Mike Ding have bought Food Fight Restaurant Group's interest in their 18-month-old restaurant on the Capitol Square, Tavernakaya. 

Tavernakaya, the pan-Asian restaurant that opened last summer on the Capitol Square, may look a little different by the end of September. 

Business partners Mike Ding and Kai Kuo are buying out Food Fight Restaurant Group next week and becoming a fully independent restaurant.

Ding said that over the next two months, his team will swap out half of the menu and resize or replate some of the rest, in order to be "more of the izakaya we set out to do." 

"We have a vision of what we want the restaurant to be," Ding said, "and it's easier to execute that vision with less cooks in the kitchen." 

Ding will be the majority owner of the restaurant and Kuo, his brother-in-law, will be a minority owner. Tavernakaya's current sushi chef is David Sasaki, with chef de cuisine Irvin Castro-Ibarra and sous chef Andrew Koenig. 

"We're going to look at our product mix and customer feedback," Ding said. "There are some things people really like we're going to keep on the menu," like the General Tso-style spicy fried cauliflower.

"There would be a revolt if we took that off," Ding said. But "there are other things we've been wanting to be introduce."

Tavernakaya opened as a blend of an izakaya, a Japanese pub, and a Wisconsin tavern. The menu revamp will lean toward Japanese, Chinese and Korean influences, with a more "sharing-friendly" format. 

"If you go to an izakaya in Tokyo, you'll find things like a burger or spaghetti carbonara," Ding said. "Izakaya is broad in the sense of what you can serve."

In central Wisconsin though, accessibility is key. 

"I'll see customers come up to our menu board and they find the offerings too foreign or out of their comfort zone," Ding said. "If you're looking for a burger or sandwiches, we're not the place for you. We've learned that we can't be everything to everyone. 

"We're going to focus on what we do well," he added. "We want to keep that tavern feel but bring back some of the dishes we have that appeal both ways, like Korean style chicken wings." 

Ding also owns Umami Ramen and Dumpling Bar on Williamson Street. He envisions "more collaboration and cross-pollination between the two restaurants." 

"We want to make the food more fun," Ding said. "We want to make the environment more fun, more casual."

To that end, Tavernakaya has hired a new general manager, Lili Luxe, who's set to start at the end of the month. She's already been involved in promoting the restaurant's late night events and recently worked with the launch of Madison's Nomad World Pub, formerly the Cardinal Bar. 

"The advantage of separating is that it will allow Kai and myself to make decisions regarding the menu and operations a little more quickly," Ding said. "There will be less hoops to jump through." 

Sign up to receive free subscriptions to our email newsletters

Never miss anything! Stay updated with our latest news, commentary and other features via e-mail.

Your information will not be shared with third parties.

Please see our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service for more information.

I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site consitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Since 2008, food editor Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, sparkling wine and good stories. She lives in Madison with two cats and too many cookbooks.