One of the many reasons why this is such an exciting era for Twin Cities dining can be summed up in two words: Young Joni.
As they contemplated a new venture, co-owners (and spouses) Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur could have simply replicated their wildly popular Pizzeria Lola and reveled in a surefire hit. But they dug deeper, forging a wholly original enterprise that is sure to be studied, copied and praised for years to come.
Yes, there’s pizza, based on Kim’s formula, and yes, it’s spot on. After six years of perfecting Lola’s wood-burning pizza oven, Kim is diving deep into her fascination with hearth cooking, using flickering red oak embers to work their magic on a wide range of ingredients, often through the flavorful prism of her Korean heritage.
Under Kim’s watchful and highly creative auspices, cauliflower, Delicata squash, sweet potatoes and other staples are utterly transformed. Ditto pork spare ribs, glazed with fermented chile paste and honey, and jumbo prawns crackle with lime, fish sauce and Fresno chiles.
Her approach to an ever-changing parade of grilled whole fish is a revelation — it’s the pinnacle item on a menu that enthusiastically embraces shareability — and even familiar fare, whether it’s spiced-up chicken wings or pork belly, feels refreshed. Restaurateurs everywhere could also learn from the approachable prices and genuinely hospitable service.
The setting will also influence the local dining scene far into the future. Kim and Leifur tapped designer Milo Garcia of Studio MAI in Los Angeles to convert an existing utilitarian structure into a seductive, timber-lined space that effortlessly embraces all the senses.
The primal lure of glowing embers is never far from view (and their smoke lightly perfumes the air) and — miracle of miracles — the enormous room’s acoustics encourage rather than flatten conversation.
Then there’s the speakeasy-like bar and its vivacious cocktail lineup. Its theatrical, up-at-the-cabin decor is no accident; it’s a nod to the Leifur family’s cherished North Dakota lake retreat (as for the restaurant’s unusual name, it’s a tribute to Kim’s and Leifur’s mothers’ first names).
Back in the dining room, an all-in emphasis on counters, bars and a sprawling communal table facilitates interaction among strangers, a welcome rarity in socially standoffish Minnesota.
“Food is about sharing, and celebration,” said Kim. “People want to be around other people.”
They clearly want to be at Young Joni. No wonder it’s one of the toughest reservations in town. Deservedly so.