Young Joni, the brilliant new restaurant by the spouses behind Pizzeria Lola, is firmly anchored in the cherished family traditions of its creators. Yet the experience feels wholly, unabashedly forward-thinking, in every way.
When Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur (she cooks; he runs the business) first explored an expansion into northeast Minneapolis, the couple originally toyed with the idea of a small-scale slice shop. When an adjacent building became available, “the vision grew,” Kim said.
“A full-service restaurant just seemed more interesting,” she said. “It could be different from Lola, but still have the heart and soul of what we do.”
Emphasizing affordable, shareable fare in a one-of-a-kind setting, Young Joni fully embraces the casual direction that dining out is taking, and then takes off, big time. Its many successful components will be studied, and replicated, for years.
It helps that Kim and Leifur have an invincible fallback plan in their back pockets: pizza.
Such glorious pizza, all bearing the same singular dough as its Pizzeria Lola counterparts. And such superb dough: Slow-fermented, slightly bubbled and charred, it’s thin yet sturdy, with an outer crackle that reveals a tender, airy interior.
The menu’s dozen selections include a few Lola crossovers, starting with Kim’s fame-making ode to Korean barbecue. There’s also a build-your-own list of 13 premium ingredients, for those who prefer to go their own way, pizza-wise.
But I encourage you to follow Kim’s well-honed instincts, and dive into the combinations devised specifically for the Young Joni menu.
Nori is the umami-boosting ingredient in a hedonistic, truffle-scented blend of mushrooms, Taleggio and Fontina. Kim ingeniously riffs on her favorite pasta dish, bucatini all’Amatriciana, tweaking its familiar foundations into a robust, dried-chile-powered extravaganza.
The Broccolini pizza points to Kim’s status as one of the city’s leading vegetable-forward chefs. The broccolini’s florets and thin stalks are roasted in the oven before landing on the pizza, and their quiet sweetness accentuates the sweet notes locked inside butter-tender Castelvetrano olives. Garlic and chiles lend punch to each bite, and almonds lend a surprise crunch. The results? Fantastic.
Then there’s La Parisienne, which Kim based on a long-ago trip to Paris when she and Leifur would walk the city, subsisting on baguettes smeared with butter and stuffed with ham and cornichons.
Back in Minneapolis, she’s pizza-fying that memory by invoking brown butter, Gruyère and ricotta, adding a first-rate prosciutto and caramelized onions. Pickled mustard seed sneaks in for the tangy, vinegary finish, and peppery arugula adds a cleansing counterbalance to the assembled I-can’t-even decadence.
Like most of output from the Young Joni pizza oven, it demonstrates how the marriage of imagination and craftsmanship can heighten a taken-for-granted experience — in this instance, eating pizza — into a revelation. And Young Joni, unlike perennially packed Pizzeria Lola, accepts reservations. Hallelujah.
The recent uptick in plant-focused cooking has reached a commendable apex at Young Joni. For that, we can thank the kitchen’s wood-burning grill, which Kim skillfully uses to insert smoke, unlock sugars, recalibrate textures and otherwise transform familiar denizens of the produce section.
“There is something so simple, rustic and primitive about cooking over an open flame,” she said.
Take sturdy greens — fibrous kale, a bitter radicchio — for starters. Cauliflower gets the deluxe treatment, with a saffron-scented chermoula that’s cleverly cooled by yogurt. The oven’s intense heat beautifully caramelizes Brussels sprouts, then Kim tamps their potential cabbage odiousness with a sweet-tart kumquat sauce and rich, fatty pork belly.
Still, the triumph (among triumphs) is purple-skinned, yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes, split and roasted on the grill, then topped with crème fraîche that’s fortified with charred green onions and jazzed with smoky sun-dried chile peppers. The finishing touch (omitted, like the Brussels sprouts’ pork belly, for vegetarians) is tissue-paper-like flakes of dried tuna, which flutter, unnervingly yet ethereally, under the potato’s heat.
They’re eons beyond the syrupy, marshmallow-coated version of sweet potatoes that has ruined the flavor- and nutrition-rich root veggies for countless Thanksgiving celebrants. The dish recalls my father’s idea of steakhouse supremacy, a skin-on baked potato lavished with sour cream and chives, only exponentially tastier. But to Kim, it’s a flashback to a childhood favorite, when her Korean mother would toss sweet potatoes that she purchased in bulk into the fireplace’s embers.
“We would peel and eat them,” she said. “They were like candy to us.”
Another nod to Kim’s mother’s table? A daily whole fish preparation.
“That’s how I grew up eating fish,” she said. “Mom would put it in the middle of the table, and we’d all eat.”
The selection varies. There has been salt-coated red snapper, and dense, oily Spanish mackerel. I recently lucked into a Dover sole-like sea bream, simply cooked over hot coals with just olive oil and salt. We watched as the scales were deftly removed tableside, then dug into the firm, meaty flesh, dipping it in a Thai-style sauce redolent of lime and chiles. Pizza, schmitza; a few bites in, and I wondered if I’d ever order anything else.
Kim also credits her mother for the delectable pork spare ribs, their abundant meatiness coated in a spirited sauce of fermented chile paste, honey, mirin and soy. They were a special-occasion treat in the Kim household, but they deserve to be treated as an everyday indulgence. Ditto the jumbo prawns, dressed in lime juice, Fresno chiles and fish sauce and grilled until they crackle with heat, from the stove and that spiced-up marinade.
Did I mention the spectacular grains salad, which utilizes what is surely the only local example of Job’s tears, an earthy Asian grain? Or the tender, spicy meatballs? Or the juicy grilled skirt steak? All three are sterling examples of Kim’s ability to inject new life into same-old, same-old dishes. Try them.
A grown-up’s treehouse
The setting, which could have been plucked from the pages of Kinfolk magazine, feels like no other restaurant. Designer Milo Garcia of Studio MAI in Los Angeles delivered a seductive space that might be mistaken for a tech billionaire’s idea of a Hollywood Hills treehouse.
Despite the room’s voluminous square footage, the glow (and comforting scent) of the kitchen’s two vital organs — the gleaming copper-clad pizza oven, and the sturdy tile-and-steel hearth, both fueled by red oak — are never out of sight. Thanks to a considerable amount of soundproofing hidden among the timbers, the dining room isn’t the deafening canyon it could be.
One of the payoffs of procuring a precious Young Joni seat is proximity. Its counters, bars and vast communal table encourage interaction among strangers, an increasing social rarity in this glued-to-our-phones era.
“Food is about sharing, and celebration,” Kim said. “People want to be around other people.” (And, yes, there are traditional table-and-chair configurations.)
For a twofer, atmosphere-wise, sneak into the funky, speakeasy-like bar, done up as an homage to Leifur’s beloved family cabin in North Dakota. There’s more history: The restaurant’s name is a tribute to Kim’s and Leifur’s mothers’ first names.
Oh, and another nod to yesteryear is the 1970s-era dishware, amassed as Kim and her thrifter pals scoured estate sales and haunted Savers. They brush yet another layer of nostalgic patina on the Young Joni experience.
The fuss-free desserts reprise Lola’s excellent soft-serve ice cream (a childhood favorite of Kim’s) and gooey chocolate chip cookies, and revisit a short-lived Lola incarnation, a piping-hot bread pudding laced with caramel sauce and a splash of raspberry liqueur.
There’s also a must-order array of tried-and-true bars, devised by John Kraus of Patisserie 46 to serve as an affectionate callback to church basement sweets. All hit the spot and then some, tailor-made addenda to the restaurant’s sense of cozy, have-a-hug hospitality.
See? Witness the no-stone-unturned details at work at Young Joni. Even the ending ends right.
Info: 165 13th Av. NE., Mpls.,
Hours: 4-11 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 4 p.m.-midnight Fri., noon-midnight Sat., noon-10 p.m. Sun. (bar open to 11 p.m.). Reservations accepted and recommended.
Price ranges: Remarkably sane. With one exception, nothing over $17.50.
Recommended dishes: Sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, grain salad, grilled kale salad, prawns, spare ribs, whole fish, pizzas, cookie and bar plate, brioche bread pudding.
Beverage program: Vivacious cocktails (thank you for being under $10) from skilled barkeep Adam Gorski. A European-centric, reasonably priced, covers-most-bases wine selection. Three cheers to the rotating beer selections from next-door neighbor Dangerous Man Brewing Co.
Special menus: A gluten-free pizza dough option that miraculously escapes the gluten-free flavor/texture stigma.