Next time you’re in Northeast Minneapolis, the pervasive aroma of wood smoke will levitate you like a cartoon character until you involuntarily find your slobbering, somnambulant face pressed against Young Joni’s glass-walled entrance. It has been a long wait for Ann Kim’s fiery new venture, and everyone’s patience has paid off deliciously.
Following in the footsteps of Kim’s successful and lauded Pizzeria Lola in southwest Minneapolis and Hello Pizza in Edina, Young Joni also trades on her expertly-fired pies — and why not? They’re among the best anywhere. But Young Joni takes the elemental core of Kim’s expertise — the simple wood fire — and amplifies it to wonderful effect across a range of delightful and surprising dishes.
But before you get a peek at the menu, the first thing that will hit you is the space itself. Designed by Studio MAI‘s Milo Garcia — who has also designed the infamous Gjelina in Venice Beach and Verve Coffee in downtown Los Angeles (both establishments having been visited by this writer, with the design making a big impression) — the restaurant is truly unlike anything else that currently exists in Minneapolis or St Paul. The kitchen, bar, and dining areas occupy the same airy, soaring space, but the design pulls off several neat tricks at once. The wraparound bar cuts a long hypotenuse through the space, with the back kitchen counter facing the ovens; the phalanx of four-tops is nicely broken up by a few large communal tables, and one wall is lined with banquettes that can cradle couples in lush upholstery and low lighting. Within the same room, there are multiple places to go, and quite a few different dining experiences you can have. Warm, natural materials appear everywhere, from the custom-made furniture to the incredible iridescent tile surrounding one of the wood-burning ovens. Rough timbers contrast with creamy, forest-green tabletops and supple leathers; the bathrooms make neat use of raw copper piping that echoes the massive copper pizza oven that anchors the kitchen. Custom-made light fixtures dot the walls, and it all comes together artfully.
Yet perhaps the most impressive trick pulled off by Young Joni’s design is that the details are there if you look for them, yet all of it manages to fade into the background to bring what’s most important into focus: your food and your friends. In a neighborhood dominated by taprooms where the predominant vibe is backward hats, food trucks, and board games, the stylish but causal vibe cultivated at Young Joni is most welcome. It’s clear that Kim and her partners have calibrated every element of the place to encourage conversation and conviviality. This is the rare restaurant in which you can actually talk without yelling, but still clearly hear the (well-curated) music. How they did it, we do not know, but it’s a relief.
Young Joni’s not-so-secret, speakeasy-style cocktail lounge — accessible from a separate entrance off the alley next to a lightsaber-like red beam in the concrete wall — exudes a similar cool factor, but tilted toward a 1960s vintage vibe. Look for our separate take on their cocktails soon — but for now, it’s worth noting that the audio system is second to none. An analog reel-to-reel tape machine sits on the bar, playing custom playlists filled with jazz, soul, and lounge through a stack of tube amps and high-fidelity speakers.
So! The food. People will come for the pizzas — as they should, because they’re uniformly great — but the rest of the menu is where Young Joni machetes a fresh path through the thicket of redundant dining options in Minneapolis, and we highly recommend that you order expansively from the non-pizza side of things. The menu is divvied up into Vegetables, Salads, Other Delights, and Pizza, and everything is meant to be shared. Ann Kim’s Asian roots bob and weave throughout in some delightful ways.
The simply named Cauliflower dish ($10) is a knockout, and representative of the beautiful balance of textures and flavor contrasts that show up again and again on the menu. Roasted cauliflower florets kissed with wood smoke retain a lovely bite, piled loosely atop a thick smear of cool, citrusy cauliflower yogurt and dotted throughout with charred shishito peppers and pickled chilis for some mild heat and piquancy. Golden raisins bring some welcome sweetness to the party, and chopped Marcona almonds finish it off. Altogether, it’s a rich, creamy, tart, sweet, smoky, and savory dish that hides real sophistication in a deceptively rustic presentation — and keeps its titular vegetable in the spotlight.
Another standout is the Bibim Grain Salad ($13). A cold take on the classic Korean bibimbap rice bowl, the salad is anchored by farro and Job’s tears, a barleylike grain native to Southeast Asia. Piled atop is a color gradient of pickled veggies that shows off some neat knife work, a sweet and spicy gochujang vinaigrette, and a soft egg that’s garnished with delicate threads of saffron. Pierce the egg and get the oozing yolk involved, and you’ve got a stunningly great salad in front of you: toothsome grains, crisp veggies, the soft egg — brilliant.
Brussels Sprouts ($11) — inescapable on menus this time of year — get a welcome treatment from the wood-burning oven, melt-in-your-mouth cubes of pork belly, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. A kumquat agrodolce rounds out the richness with a tart, tangy sweetness.
One of our favorite dishes of the night was another salad, the Persimmon and Purple Daikon ($10). A lovely nest of thin matchsticks composed of persimmon, daikon and manchego cheese — all precisely and identically sized — is sprinkled with a minuscule brunoise of pequin chilis and a dusting of chives. Each forkful brings every element together in a fascinating, sophisticated harmony of honeylike sweetness, vegetal crunch, and nutty, salty tang, all laced with considerable heat from the pequins.
The Grilled Chili Blue Prawns ($14) get a Korean treatment with a gochujang-like sauce and lime. Staring at you with heads and eyeballs still attached, the large prawns (three to a plate) are grilled over wood, their natural sweetness a suitable vehicle for the dusky spice of the chili. You’ll want to suck out those heads and mop up that sauce with whatever errant pizza crusts you might have on hand.
When it comes to the pies, you can’t miss. The Korean BBQ pizza ($17.50) makes it way across the river from Lola just as gloriously adorned with beef short ribs, arugula, and soy-chili vinaigrette. The Sausage and Onion ($16) is a sweet / savory / spicy (notice a theme here?) marriage of leeks, caramelized onions, creme fraiche, fennel sausage and fennel pollen. There is a raft of other choices topped with all sorts of goodies, both vegetable and flesh (Red Table meats, produced just a couple of blocks away in the Food Building, feature prominently), and all are just damn fine. But we came away rhapsodizing about the humblest, meekest, cheapest one of the bunch: The Marinara ($8).
Here’s the deal. Great pizza, at its absolute core, is based on just two things: the crust and the sauce. To offer a pizza like The Marinara — which is simply crust topped with red sauce, garlic, oregano, and olive oil — is to be confident in your pizza. And Ann Kim should be confident, even cocky. This is our favorite pie at Young Joni because of its simple perfection. Kim’s crust is structurally sound all the way through yet still incredibly thin (unlike the soupy Punch Pizza crusts), with a consistently good char from the oven and a light crisp texture that gives way to a sublime, glutinous chew and stretch. The red sauce is ladled in a uniform layer in just the right amount, and its flavor is a lyrical poem that honors the tomato. Confited garlic dots the pie, along with splashes of fruity olive oil of the highest quality. In short, this humble pie sings the song of pizza so truly you almost cry, and it has no cheese on it. Drop the mic, Ann!
Desserts are only two, and both capture Young Joni’s vibe smartly. The Church Basement Bar Plate ($7) is fun as hell and perfectly sharable. Three excellent versions of classic Minnesota-Lutheran-style bars adorn a rectangular plate, along with a miniature glass bottle of milk with a candy-striped straw emerging. It’d be gimmicky if the bars — a brownie, a lemon bar, and a peanut butter bar — weren’t so excellent. Even better, and cheaper, is the house-made soft serve. We opted for a pistachio-vanilla swirl topped with olive oil and sea salt, and couldn’t have imagined a much better way to close the meal.
Altogether, we were struck by how smooth and consistent our experience was during three visits within two weeks of Young Joni’s opening. It’s rare that a brand-new restaurant feels like its sitting comfortably in third gear, right off the starting line. The service is just the right blend of casual, attentive and knowledgeable, and the food arrived quickly. Young Joni somehow feels lived-in and well-loved, which speaks to the thoughtful design of the space: just like the food, it’s deceptively sophisticated, carefully considered, and an all-around pleasure to spend time with. Northeast Minneapolis neighbors have a new crown jewel, and everyone else has a worthy new destination. Go to Young Joni and be happy.
Stylish temple of Neapolitan-style pizza and wood-fired, Asian-tinged dishes in Northeast Minneapolis
165 13th Ave NE
Minneapolis, MN 55413
Tues-Thu 4 p.m.-11 p.m.
Fri 4 p.m.-midnight
Sun noon-10 p.m.
OWNERS / CHEF: Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $8-$17.50
NOISE LEVEL: You can talk without yelling, but still clearly hear the music
PARKING: Street parking nearby
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes