It didn't take long for chef Jonah Kim to grasp the benefits of hitching his rising star to Mike Isabella's expanding galaxy of restaurants. Kim instantly had access to graphic designers, contractors, PR agents, cooks, architects, a whole gamut of professionals already grounded in the business of dining.
Just as important, Kim had access to Isabella's sandwich shop, G, where the former Pabu chef could host pop-ups to prepare for Yona, his planned Japanese/Korean noodle bar and small-plates restaurant in Ballston. The pop-ups at G — both a two-month visitation in the spring and a two-day stopover in November — helped the former Baltimore chef understand the D.C. market and how diners differ here.
"It was great because I got to sort of see the flow of diners, the type of diners [who] come in and what I could really offer," Kim says during a phone interview. "I definitely learned from it. Some things that I'm not going to be doing and things that I'm going to be doing."
All those pop-ups later, Yona is now ready for prime-time: Kim and Isabella will roll out the 50-seat restaurant on Monday, Nov. 30., in the same building that already houses two other Mike Isabella Concepts: Kapnos Taverna and Pepita Cantina, his seafood-heavy Greek restaurant and tequila-swilling Mexican restaurant respectively. Yona will launch with lunch only and then expand into dinner service on Friday, Dec. 4, although reservations will be accepted for both immediately. (See information below.)
One entree that made the cut is Kim's mashup of two noodle dishes: Japanese ramen and Korean jajangmyeon. He calls it ja-jang ramen, and it's a tangle of traditional ramen noodles with poached squid, fried cubes of pork belly, onions, zucchini, cucumber, chili threads and a fermented black-bean paste to tie it all together.
"That kind of dish really works well with ramen noodles because of the springy-ness" of the noodles, says Kim. "I think a lot of people were hesitant, and when they knew that it didn't have broth, they were like, 'What kind of ramen doesn't have broth?'"
Then they took a bite of the dish with all the contrasting flavors and temperatures.
"If I did that dish in Baltimore, maybe it won't do so well," Kim adds, "but doing it here, I think there's a larger Asian community that is familiar with dishes like that. There's a couple of places in Annandale that actually serve jajangmyeon."
Kim plans to keep his opening menu tight. He's pared down the options to about 17 dishes for dinner. The lunch menu, designed for the harried grab-and-go office drone, will be even smaller with a few ramen options (such as the Miso Porky with braised pork belly), a couple of donburi rice bowls (including katsudon with panko-coated pork), a crispy chicken sandwich fermented chili slaw and a salad or two.
While Yona will offer sake, Japanese beers, a small selection of Japanese whisky and a few Asian-inspired cocktails from beverage director, Taha Ismail, the restaurant will not have a bar where you can knock back drinks. A tiny bar originally planned for the 1,500-foot space was jettisoned during construction in favor of an expanded kitchen and a service bar for the dining room. Both Kim and Isabella believe the decision will prove a benefit to the other Isabella-branded concepts in the building.
"Pepita's right next door," Kim says. "Guests could go to Pepita, wait there and have a drink, and then we would text them" when their table is ready.
One thing Kim wants to do is expand the ramen shop starters beyond gyoza dumplings and pork steam buns, which can make for a dense, heavy meal when followed by bowls of miso ramen or tonkotsu-shoyu ramen. So he's developed bites such as an uni waffle with caviar and smoked hamachi with a Korean red-chili dipping sauce.
"I think that raw dishes that are cold are great starters because ramen is rich," Kim says. "You want to start with something light."
As for his new business partner, Kim says the former "Top Chef" contestant couldn't have been more respectful of his vision for Yona.
"I'm not saying this just because you're going to write about it, but honestly, Mike has been one of the best partners that I think anyone in this industry could have," Kim says. "He's a busybody. He's always busy. He's always got stuff going on. So that pushes everyone else that works with him to be in that same state of mind: to continue to push-push, and in a very positive way."
It's a new role for Isabella, whose has also partnered with Philadelphia chef Jennifer Carroll for a planned French-Mediterranean seafood restaurant in the Wharf development. Isabella sounds almost relieved not to have to attend every planning meeting or every menu tasting. For Yona, and presumably for the Carroll project Requin, Isabella's job has been to provide financial, business and build-out advice.
"When you open up your first restaurant, you usually don't know all that [business] stuff because you're not dealing with that when you run a restaurant," Isabella says. "You can go out of business before you even open if you don't understand that side of the business."
Yona, 4000 Wilson Blvd., Suite C, Arlington, www.yonava.com. Lunch hours for launch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Hours starting Dec. 4.: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For reservations, call 703-465-1100.