Big ticket item, and worth it: ponzu steak frites.
If a new restaurant doesn’t feel new, that’s usually a problem. Sometimes familiar is good, but a new restaurant should feel a little novel and exciting. Tavernakaya feels entirely unlike any other restaurant in Madison.
Tavernakaya opened in mid-December, but had to close about a month later due to a massive water leak. But the Japanese gastropub is now back in business between Walgreens and the Park Bank on the Capitol Square.
Owner Michael Ding took advantage of the time off to retool the menu slightly. What was a wagyu beef patty on the TK Burger is now “normal” ground beef. This is fine, as it seems to me any benefit to the finely marbled wagyu (also known as kobe) beef is completely obliterated by grinding. The toppings have changed, too, but if the seasoning and sear on the patty remain the same, it will still be a fine burger.
The sushi menu has doubled in size, with a number of basic rolls added to the specialty rolls like the TK Bay (tender scallops inside, shrimp salad with a subtle touch of wasabi on top) and the Mt. Fuji (shrimp tempura inside with spicy tuna that’s actually spicy on top). These maki rolls are generally more expensive than similar rolls that aren’t made in sight of the Capitol, but they’re hefty and good.
It’s still a menu with a bit of sprawl, but version 2.0 is easier to navigate.
Noodles, dumplings and pork buns are similar to those from Umami, Ding’s other shop. Gyoza are as fat and porky as ever, seared hard on one side. The “O.G.” pork buns aren’t identical to the originals at Umami, but they’re close. Here, they’re a little lighter, less roasty, but still delicious. Fried chicken buns are a fun Buffalo chicken reference, with all that spicy crunch smooshed into a pillowy mantou.
The beef curry udon takes noodles a step past the standard ramen bowls at Umami, but most components were on the verge of being overcooked, and, aside from mild curry spices, the dish was lacking in salt and depth.
Tavernakaya’s skewers and small plates point to the kitchen’s greatest skills. The yakitori bring to mind the best aspects of the dearly departed Kushi Bar Muramoto; the chicken meatball is delicately seasoned and juicy, while pork belly is crisped meat and creamy fat — luxury on a stick. Meaty lemongrass shrimp arrived slightly overcooked, but not offensively so.
Samurai pork ribs, three to the serving, were as tender as the pork belly skewer, with a sweet five-spice glaze. (Maybe the ribs ordered the yakitori to skewer themselves; otherwise, the samurai moniker doesn’t make a ton of sense.)
Togarashi fries were overseasoned with the Japanese pepper blend in the opening run of the menu, but now they’re much more subtle. I’ve wished for the savory pancake okonomiyaki in Madison for years, and Tavernakaya’s is substantial, smooth from the rice flour batter that binds it.
I was in a distinctly happy place eating the Taiwanese three cup chicken, generously portioned and redolent with basil. The sauce on the General Tso’s cauliflower was both bright and deep, but portion size barely lived up to the “Large Plates” section, and the unevenly sized chunks of cauliflower were also unevenly cooked inside their crisp batter shells.
The largest menu item at Tavernakaya, the ponzu steak frites, will be remembered by my table as one of the best plates of food we’ve had in recent memory. A perfect medium-rare hanger steak, trimmed neatly and tidily marinated, shared the plate with a heap of togarashi fries and a ginger-wasabi aioli so gratifying we asked for a second cup before the first was gone.
Between the banquettes along one side, the booths way in the back, some unexpectedly comfortable tall four-tops, and both a sushi bar and a drinks bar (skip the Roberta Rita cocktail, embrace Mono No Aware’s pleasant spice instead), this feels like a big restaurant despite its modest size. The kitchen can execute. Tavernakaya stands to be a fun room for a good while.
27 E. Main St., 608-286-1548, tavernakaya.com, 11 am-2 pm and 4 pm-10 pm Mon.-Wed., 11 am-2 pm and 4 pm-2 am Thurs.-Fri., 4 pm-2 am Sat., $3-$24