Yona won me over with “good evening.”
The hot spot’s host doesn’t make me wait at the door until my companion finds a parking space. “Want to be seated?” she asks.
Other places push designer water on customers. “House still or sparkling?” my server asks, wanting to know which of two free waters I prefer.
Equally inviting are the dining room, set off with tented cedar rafters, and the soundtrack. Cyndi Lauper pairs well with the signature ramen and “everything else,” as the Korean- and Japanese-inspired small plates are called.
Yona is the third neighboring restaurant, along a single block of Wilson Boulevard in Ballston, in which chef-restaurateur Mike Isabella has a stake. The trio are hardly competitors: His first, Kapnos Taverna, champions Greek seafood; his second, Pepita Cantina, is a Mexican-accented watering hole.
Yona, in contrast, provides a showcase for chef Jonah Kim, who made Charm City a better place to eat during the brief life of Pabu, the refined Japanse tavern in the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore.
Tired of salads that taste as if they all come from the same kitchen? Kim shows there are more than just greens to toss, with a mix of crisp bean sprouts, breezy mint, Thai chilies and mizuna, everything splashed with a dressing bold with fish sauce. The chef’s wings stand apart from the flock, too. Rolled in Japanese potato starch, fried twice and finished with a barbecue glaze by way of Asia, Yona’s gingery wings commence with a crackle and conclude with a grin.
Everyone around me is ordering the uni waffle, and I follow suit. As advertised, the popular plate features a crisp ricotta waffle decked out with lush sea urchin, but so much more: a swipe of taramasalata beneath the sea-scented uni and a cluster of shimmering caviar for extra pop. “It’s the most Instagrammed dish,” a server says. Something tells me it will also become one of the most copied.
It’s tempting to fill up on small plates at the expense of noodle soup. Show some restraint. The one ramen I sampled, the strapping Miso Porky, encourages me to explore the other three bowls, too. The fine noodles have welcome resistance, the sliced meat is divine and the broth is the heady amalgam of Japanese tahini, wood ear mushrooms, garlic, chilies, fermented bamboo shoots and bones that have simmered for a long time. A wooden spoon with a deep bowl adds to the pleasure.
As I’m settling the bill, the satisfied customer sitting across from me identifies a potential flaw at Yona. With a mere 50 seats, he says, “this place is way too small.”
4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-465-1100. yonava.com. Ramen and small plates, $7 to $16.