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Mike Isabella is fashioning himself even more as a restaurateur with his latest opening. The chef behind Kapnos and Graffiato has partnered with chef Jonah Kim to open Yona, a Japanese-Korean noodle bar and small-plates restaurant that debuts for lunch today and dinner on Dec. 4 in Arlington.
The two are 50-50 partners in the business, though the menu is 100 percent Kim’s. “Mike was there as a guide, and he was there sort of as a mediator, but then from there on, it was just like ‘OK, it’s your thing,'” Kim says. Isabella will have a similar partnership with fellow Top Chef contestant Jen Carroll when they open Requin, a Mediterranean-inspired seafood restaurant coming to The Wharf in 2017.
Kim met Isabella through various chef events while he was working at Pabu, a Japanese restaurant at the Four Seasons in Baltimore. Isabella invited Kim to cook for some of his “Industry Nights” at Graffiato. Over time, the two became closer friends and went with a bunch of other chefs on beach holiday together. While there, the two got to talking. Kim didn’t have any big plans on the horizon after Pabu closed, so Isabella suggested they do something together. “It was very organic. Mike wasn’t trying to recruit me or anything like that. We were friends,” Kim says.
Yona is located in the same building as two other Isabella restaurants, Pepita and Kapnos Taverna.
About 70 percent of the menu is made up of dishes that Kim tested at pop-ups at Isabella’s G. Ramen bowls ($13–$14) will include the “miso porky,” which is exactly what it sounds like with a pork broth and miso tare (sauce), as well as a soy milk–based veggie ramen. One newer addition is the Korean-inspired ja-jang ramen with fermented black bean, pork belly, poached squid, and kimchi. Unlike the other noodle dishes, this one has no broth.
Kim gets his noodles from Sun Noodles, which also supplies Momofuku. Kim went to their factory in New Jersey and arranged for them to make three types of specialty noodles for Yona. Each has a different thickness, moisture level, and texture. “I don’t want people to come in and there’s one type of noodle and that’s it,” Kim says. “There’s so much more to it.”
In addition to a limited ramen menu, lunch offerings include options for “on-the-go professionals,” like donburi rice bowls.
Dinner small plates ($6–$14) range from dry-fried wings to homemade tofu to an “uni waffle” topped with fish eggs like ikura, caviar, and taramasalata. “I don’t want it to be stuffy, so I made the waffle,” Kim explains. “It is decadent, but as you eat it, it’s actually really light.”
Kim comes from a sushi background, and while you won’t find nigiri or rolls, you will see a number of raw fish preparations. Among them is a smoked hamachi as well as fluke with sour coconut, dehydrated shiso, cherries, and lemon. Kim explains that most ramen restaurants serve heavier sides like dumplings and steamed buns, but he wanted something lighter to whet diners’ appetites.
“When you have something that’s filling and warm and more substantial like ramen, raw dishes work well before it,” Kim says. “A lot of my food is temperatures and textures, and that really helps with people continuing to eat things, because your palate isn’t really tired.”
Yona, 4000 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; yonava.com
Photo by Greg Powers