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People kept urging Brian Park: "You need to open a Korean restaurant in Madison." Many of those people were his employees working summer jobs at his Milwaukee restaurant, who also attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
"I heard so many good things about Madison," Park says.
It was seven or eight years before it actually happened, but the restaurateur, who says he's opened about 15 restaurants, finally brought a spot in Madison. Mr. Kimchi is a Korean fusion eatery at 225 King St., which most notably used to be the location of Madison's Asian fusion restaurant Muramoto.
The focus at Mr. Kimchi is making Korean food more approachable. The menu is easy to read and the options are tailored to the American palate. For example, there are quite a few dishes that include kimchi — a fermented cabbage side dish and the restaurant's namesake — but it's not fermented as long as it might be otherwise. "We make it fresh and use less fish sauce," says Park. "Sometimes fish sauce makes customers afraid, and they stop trying Korean food. So we use it less so that people can try it and see how good it is."
The menu has a long list of starters including kimchi fries, Korean fried chicken wings, yookhwae (beef tartare), bulgogi rangoons and tteok-bokki, which are rice/fish cakes that have a crispy outer layer and a chewy interior — essentially Korean cheese curds.
Mr. Kimchi doubles down on the Wisconsin theme by offering a K Old-Fashioned on the drink menu. It's a bourbon Old-Fashioned that's topped with Jinro, a Korean spirit called sujo that's popular in Korea.
The menu also features a noodle/soup section that includes jjampong seafood guksoo (shrimp and scallop), gogi guksoo (beef broth and brisket), monkfish guksoo (clam broth and monkfish) and myungran guksoo (cured cod roe). Four tacos on the menu let you pick between bulgogi, spicy pork, spicy tuna and spicy salmon.
Mr. Kimchi's bibimbap rice bowls stand out from any other bibimbap offering in town — it comes in a skillet as opposed to a stone bowl, and your choices are brown or purple rice. "The flavor is better than white rice and much healthier than white rice," says Park.
Park says he likes to serve bibimbap in a skillet because it has better presentation and is easier to mix together. The rice and vegetable mixture is tossed with sesame oil so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the skillet. "It's cold in Wisconsin. It makes so much sense that we use a hot skillet to keep the rice warm," Park says.
Park developed the menu with his head chef, Jaekeun Kim. Kim has experience at restaurants in Manhattan's Koreatown neighborhood, Park says, and he also helped Park open Stone Bowl Grill, a restaurant still in operation today in Milwaukee. "He's a great chef," Park says. "He knows how to do Western cuisine; he knows how to do Korean food."
Managing Mr. Kimchi is Brian Kim Gonia, who also has fine dining experience in Manhattan and is a trained sushi chef who knows how to cook many different styles, Park says.
Park moved from South Korean at age 17 and lived most of his adult life in Chicago. The restauratuer also owns Zen Sushi in Beloit and another Mr. Kimchi location in Mount Prospect, Illinois. He's currently living in Beloit and has an apartment in the same building as the Madison Mr. Kimchi. He held his first soft opening on Jan. 29 and is continuing to tweak the menu and work out the kinks with service. Mr. Kimchi is currently open to the public under its normal business hours, but Park plans to hold a grand opening of his first Madison restaurant sometime in March or April.
In the restaurant, Park emanates a contagious friendliness that is matched by his servers and cooks, who can be seen through the open kitchen. While many of Park's family members are in the fashion industry, he has always been drawn to the restaurant business. "Honestly, I love to eat," he says.
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