For their fourth property, Ann Kim and Conrad Leifur, the couple behind Vestalia Hospitality (named for the Roman festival of Vesta, goddess of home, hearth and family), plan to open a Mexican-inspired restaurant.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for quite some time,” said Kim. “It’s always been one of those back-burner, maybe-someday kinds of things. Now it just feels right.”
Lucia’s (pictured, above) closed in October 2017 after a 32-year run. Founder Lucia Watson sold her business in 2014 to a group of investors. The couple (pictured, below, in the dining room of their Young Joni in a Star Tribune file photo) was approached by the building’s landlord.
“They felt that we’d carry on the tradition of putting in something special,” said Kim. “For me, Lucia’s is an iconic space. For 30 years, she was a trailblazer, and so inspiring both as a female chef and in the way she brought farm-to-table cuisine to the neighborhood. And although Uptown has evolved and changed, it’s such a strong, important neighborhood, it’s sort of the heartbeat of Minneapolis. It was important to make sure that something special went into that corner of Uptown. I was afraid that it would turn into a drugstore or something, and it was important for us to bring back that neighborhood feeling that Lucia created, and keep the integrity of the space alive.”
Kim said that the restaurant will focus on handmade, heirloom corn tortillas, based on the ones she and Leifur have enjoyed during their frequent travels through Mexico.
“The first time I had one, it blew my mind, I almost cried,” she said. “It was like the first experience of having really great pizza, and thinking, ‘This is what pizza can be.’ Those tortillas really brought that experience back to me, and I thought, ‘People need to taste this.’ It’s like great bread. You taste it and you wonder, ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’ and the answer is, ‘It’s hard, it’s complicated, and if it were easy, everyone would be doing it.’ But I like to focus on craft. That’s what led to Pizzeria Lola, and Hello Pizza and Young Joni. And now I want to do the same with the tortilla.”
Like the kitchen at Young Joni, which features a prominent wood-burning stove, this new project will “include fire in some way,” said Kim, and will concentrate on Mexican flavors as well as like-minded ingredients that are grown locally.
“This won’t be your typical taqueria,” said Kim. “I have fun ideas for incorporating the flavors of our terroir into creating a new way of eating Mexican food. And I’m inspired by my experience as a home cook. There are lots of bold flavors in both Korean cooking and in Mexican cooking. This isn’t going to be a Korean-Mexican fusion in any way, but there are so many wonderful flavors and spices and textures from Mexico, and I want to play with them, and twist them.”
The bar will maintain Lucia’s full liquor license. “We’re doing research on the variety of beverages, both with alcohol and without, that use masa as a base,” said Kim.
The four storefronts that once comprised Lucia’s various incarnations — the two dining rooms, the wine bar and the bakery/cafe — will be re-imagined by Studio MAI, the L.A.-based design firm that made Young Joni such a distinctive destination. The dining rooms and wine bar will be opened into a single, contiguous space, and the bakery/cafe will remain a separate environment.
“What we’re going to do there is yet to be determined,” said Kim. “But we definitely have some ideas.”
The project is without a name, at least not one that Kim and Leifur are ready to announce.
“We’ve got some possibilities, but nothing that we’re ready to confirm,” said Kim. “We’ll narrow it down when it’s right. I don’t have kids of my own, but I imagine this is kind of like when people ask about names before the kid is born.”
Construction should begin this fall with a summer 2019 target opening.
“That’s the hope, but you know how that goes,” said Kim with a laugh. “It’s always about best laid plans. So far, we’re on track. We’re lots more prepared and organized than we were for the other three.”