So there’s Young, and there’s Joni.
One attentive and skillful Korean family cook: Young. One affectionate and bibulous North Dakota family host: Joni.
Okay, so there’s this restaurant: Young Joni. Coming soon. Northeast Minneapolis. Front dining room in the spirit of Young: Wood-fired ovens, open grill, shareable meals, generosity. Back bar in the spirit of Joni: Reel-to-reel tape deck, comfortable seats, great drinks, conviviality.
You can sit around Young’s family table and let her spoil you with good food all evening. Or you can kick back in Joni’s lounge, and let her ply you with good conversation all night.
Ann Kim is describing this to me—the idea behind her new restaurant—and I get it. I totally do.
She’s standing at Jon Wipfli’s kitchen counter, finishing a glaze for some spare ribs that have spent most of the day in Jon’s smoker, and she is talking.
And because Ann is a minor force of nature, and because her other two restaurants, Pizzeria Lola and Hello Pizza, are what they are, I’m finding it nearly impossible to believe that Young Joni won’t take Northeast Minneapolis, and by extension the rest of the Twin Cities, by storm.
Not to mention that Adam Gorski is standing next to her at the counter, and that he will be heading up the bar at Ann’s restaurant. That would be Adam Gorski, as in the former lead barman at La Belle Vie lounge—possibly my favorite place to be seated in the entire Twin Cities while that particular magic lasted. Adam is describing his ambitions for a cocktail menu at Young Joni designed to be drinkable throughout a meal. Which is something I’ve been waiting for, essentially, forever. There’s almost nothing better than an evening that unrolls over several rounds of cocktails, except for the resulting taste bud massacre that makes it almost impossible to combine an evening like that with a beautiful meal.
So I totally, totally get it. I’m sort of in love with Young, and with Joni, and with Young Joni.
But… my mind keeps stubbing its toe as it walks around these two rooms, and I can’t decide why.
Ann is talking again, with a great forward momentum. She’s describing pizzas coming out of the big wood-fired oven—the hot one. And intense Middle Eastern and Asian vegetables coming out of the second oven, the less-hot one. And she’s describing meat searing on the seven-foot open flame grill. She’s talking about trying to recreate that sense of family around a table, all grabbing for food that they don’t classify but just know is really freaking good.
And across from Ann, Adam, with a boyish smile and a winning mix of earnestness and irony, is blending a brandy old fashioned—a drink that perfectly captures the spirit of a slow, gabby North Dakota evening among friends. But he’s replacing brandy with cognac. And table sugar with chamomile syrup. And orange with lemon. And he’s smiling slyly as he drops a couple of chamomile flowers into a drink whose spiritual home is a Wisconsin tavern. And I really want a cocktail that’s playful, and approachable, and well thought-out, with whatever I’m eating tonight.
I get it.
But I’m trying to make all the pieces fit together in my head. The two moms. The two rooms. Yes. They make conceptual sense. And then the Korean influence. Middle Eastern. Italian. All those cultures with open flame traditions. Makes sense, sure. But…
Ann seems completely certain of her footing as she talks. There’s a lot of her own life, and a lot of love, wrapped up in this vision. There is energy behind every word she speaks. But I find myself wondering if Young Joni is trying to be too many things. What is this place, made up of all these different pieces from around the world? What do you call it? What’s the elevator pitch?
Then she says, “You know, like dinner at my house when we were growing up. A bucket of KFC, some kimchee, and a bowl of rice. We didn’t know what that was. We just knew it was good.”
And I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but she has just dropped a couple sly chamomile flowers in my mental brandy old fashioned.
Hmm. What is this place, made up of all these different pieces from around the world? What do you call it? Oh, I don’t know, Steve. How about, “America?”
Because of course what she’s been talking about all evening long—as my left brain has bounced around trying find categories for what she’s been describing—is American cuisine.
American cuisine, as in how Americans eat right now. Not how they aspire to eat. Not big city flirtations with European high culture, or celebrity chefs on the Food Network, or local, seasonal, and organic, but how they actually eat, in real life, most days. A polyglot, mixed-race, anti-hierarchical grab bag of flavors from around the entire world—borrowed and occasionally stolen, not from white linen tables in Paris and Rome, or from mythical pioneer ancestors, but from noisy family kitchens in Naples and Munich and Beirut and Chiang Mai and Mexico City.
What else do you call a week spent putting pizza in the oven, and then making tacos, and then going out for sushi, and then having a food truck gyro for lunch, and then putting together a pan of lasagna, and then calling in an order for tandoori chicken with an extra order of naan? If a cuisine is simply what people eat in a certain place, then that is American cuisine right now. It’s how we eat. We reach across the table for something really freaking good, that probably arrived here originally from somewhere else.
As we all did.
Can you make a restaurant and bar out of that idea? Can you fill 140 seats with it? If Ann Kim is in the kitchen? And Adam Gorski is behind the bar? I don’t know. But I’m officially interested. And Northeast Minneapolis—home of Kramarczuk’s, and Emily’s Lebanese Deli, and Gasthof Zur Gemütlichkeit, and the Peacock Lounge—is probably as good a place as any in the Twin Cities to find out.
Meanwhile, the ribs are out of the smoker. The deep-colored, glistening pork spare ribs have been joined by a couple of moose ribs from Jon Wipfli’s recent Alaska hunting trip. Everything is laid out on a weathered wooden table. There is cabbage slaw. There are pickles. There are brandy old fashioneds. There is going to be some reaching, some passing, some talking, some pouring. Some Young. And some Joni.
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