Add restaurant mogul to Mike Isabella's resume.
Isabella plans to partner with Baltimore chef Jonah Kim to open Yona, a Japanese noodle bar and small-plates restaurant in Ballston. It will be Isabella's first restaurant in which he's a business partner, and not part of the culinary team. Yona, under the Mike Isabella Concepts umbrella, is expected to open in spring 2015.
Yona (the name is both the Korean and Japanese pronunciation of Kim's given name) will serve lunch and dinner daily. Lunch will be a casual, fast-paced affair, leaning on Kim's donburi bowls and his chef-driven takes on tonkotsu ramen, the pork-bone based noodle soup that requires hours of stove-top boiling. Lunch will focus on takeout orders for those desk-bound drones in the surrounding Ballston office buildings.
At night, Yona will switch to a sit-down dinner service with a full bar program from Taha Ismail, the beverage director for Isabella's restaurants. The menu will expand to include small plates that draw on Kim's Korean heritage and his training in Japanese cuisine: Think Korean fried chicken (with gochujang-bourbon glaze), steamed duck buns and, of course, several varieties of kimchi, including seasonal variations like ramp kimchi.
Kim received kimchi training straight from his mother, even though it runs counter to Korean tradition. "Normally it’s passed down to the daughters," Kim says about the family's kimchi secrets. "But since I’m a chef, she made an exception.”
The 1,500-square-foot Yona will be located at 4000 Wilson Blvd., in the same building as Kapnos Taverna, a spinoff of Isabella's Kapnos concept, and the celebrity chef's compact cantina, Pepita. (Incidentally, Kapnos Taverna is expected to open next month and Pepita sometime in the first quarter of next year.)
Isabella and Kim have been friends and colleagues for a while, often working the same charity events. Isabella says he used to make pilgrimages to Baltimore to eat at Pabu, the Michael Mina-branded izakaya in the Four Seasons, where Kim served as executive chef. Kim's work at Pabu earned 2 1/2 stars from The Post's Tom Sietsema in 2012 and a semifinalist nod from the James Beard Foundation for best new restaurant in 2013.
When Kim left Pabu, just weeks before Mina closed the izakaya in June, he started talking with Isabella about his next move. "It just grew from there," Kim says.
"It’s my concept and my food, and Mike is absolutely there to support and help me," Kim adds.
"I definitely wanted to go off into other directions," says Isabella during a phone interview. "It's a good move for me and a good move for Jonah."
Not formally trained, Kim received his culinary education in kitchens from New York City to Las Vegas, including DJT in the Trump Hotel in Vegas, Blue Fin on Times Square and the acclaimed Uchi in Austin, where Kim got his start in cooking. His original career goal was to be a sports medicine doctor, but "I realized that's not what I wanted to do," Kim says.
Kim found his passion in the kitchen instead, learning the complex simplicity of Japanese cuisine under Tyson Cole and his team at Uchi. "I think it was good training for me, learning the product that I was using," Kim says. "It was a good, all-around start."
The chef's background in Korean and Japanese food will virtually guarantee one thing: business partner Isabella won't be tempted to stick his nose in Kim's menus.
"I don't know anything about the food," Isabella confesses. "My job is to be his right hand, if he needs assistance."