Photographs by Caitlin Abrams
A party table at Young Joni
A party table sits just off the bar at Young Joni.
Walking into the soaring, beautifully designed Young Joni for the first time, you can see why it took the place so long to open. Ann Kim first talked about her plans for the Northeast Minneapolis restaurant in 2014, but remained cagey about it for the next couple years. It finally opened in November, tucked around the corner from Dangerous Man Brewing in an old record shop. It was worth the wait. Young Joni has warmth and movement, fire and wood, copper and clay, touches both modern and retro. It all comes together in a space unlike any other in the Twin Cities. Kim tapped California designer Milo Garcia to create the restaurant (and the secret back bar, which we’ll get to) with painstaking detail and a love for imperfection. Some of the boards don’t perfectly match up. There may be a missing corner on the stone in the floor. Such natural elements meld seamlessly with a back wall where an open grill spews fire beneath iridescent green Japanese tiling. The overall aesthetic is somehow exhilarating and calming, an analog retreat in a digital world.
The open room has different pockets of seating. The bar sits not against the wall, nor as a square in the middle of the room, but off-center and open on all sides. An extension of the bar acts as a kind of isthmus, with seating all around (a pal has dubbed this area “Florida YJ”). Next to it sits a mammoth walnut table—a giant square block with inlaid copper—that in most restaurants would be tucked in the corner for groups. But Kim thought it would be more fun to put it in the midst of the party.
So, while you’re at your isthmus party, what are you eating? Well, here’s a shocker: pizza. Of course, Kim was going to do pizza here—she’s the owner/empress of cult favorites Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza. The same style of lovely copper Le Panyol oven that you’ll find at Lola sits at the other end of the bar at Young Joni. But Kim’s new place feels, looks, and acts like so much more than a pizza joint. I’ll admit that those cagey details she leaked over the years convinced me that Young Joni would be more about Korean barbecue and fire-roasted dishes. Both are here, but if you’re looking to make it a full meal, you’ll likely be adding at least one pizza.
The pies are similar to Lola’s. Some are exact replicas, while others, like The Basque—with chorizo, castelvetrano olives, piquillo peppers, and goat cheese—strike a rich and playful new path. The Amatriciana is clean and elegant, topped with Red Table guanciale and pancetta, and lifted by a red sauce that’s decked with chili flakes and graceful red onion strings. It’s simple and very adult.
But we always knew Kim was solid on pies, so what about the other side of the menu? The wood- and fire-touched vegetables and roasted meats small plates add dimension to her cooking. The influence from Kim’s Korean heritage is evident, and welcome, in dishes like the Japanese sweet potato hunks that arrive kicked-up with gochugaru Korean chili flakes and topped with delicate bonito flakes. It’s both earthy and sweet with a tangy spice. The cauliflower is a stunner, tumbled with shishito peppers on a swipe of bright yogurt. It redefines the humble, overused veg.
The meatballs are lighter than I remember at Lola, the sauce richer and kicked with kimchi. The sweet and spicy spareribs with gochujang BBQ sauce and tart pickled veg are my favorite of the meats. The cold Bibim Grain salad, a bowl of roasted and pickled vegetables and farro that includes a breakable egg on top, wasn’t always successful for me. The idea is that you break the egg and mix it with the rest of the goods, but if your yolk isn’t runny, it kinda doesn’t work. That said, I have faith in such innovative ideas—in Kim’s quest to reach further into flavors, mixing cuisines and ingredients in surprising ways. With that in mind, watch for specials that will come along as Kim and her team get used to the volume and become more comfortable with the grill and oven. One night brought a whole salt-crusted lemongrass snapper that came off the grill, and another a crazy-cool chilaquiles/pizza hybrid. Just you wait.
Back bar at Young Joni
Young Joni’s not-so-secret back bar boasts a vintage reel-to-reel audio system.
Now, about that secret back bar, which is where you should definitely end up after dinner. Walk down the back alleyway, and if you see a red light strip glowing near a door, the bar is open. It feels lightly connected to Young Joni, but has its own distinct vibe. It’s like wandering into your neighbor’s secret garage bar, but more comfortable and with drinks from pro mixer Adam Gorski. Also notable: the vintage, reel-to-reel audio system that plays soul and jazz. Grab one of the mismatched seats and peruse the cheeky bar menu, which is illustrated like a family photo album. You can’t go wrong—every drink I’ve had here is perfectly balanced and strongly made. Over the holidays, a bourbon cognac eggnog was richly capped with Grand Marnier whipped cream.
Crowds have been packing Young Joni since it opened, and rightly so. Pizza may be the dish that hooks you here, but that fire will call you back with promises of something more.
165 13th Ave. NE, Mpls., 612-345-5719, youngjoni.com