The decision to close Sooki & Mimi wasn't easy.
"It's complicated," said award-winning chef Ann Kim. "It wasn't that I wasn't proud of the food — I am. Or what we'd done with the restaurant — we are. And we've had so much positive feedback from guests."
But the restaurant was conceived and built in a time before COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd. It opened to occupancy caps and plywood boards on neighborhood windows. It's a restaurant that has evolved in its short time, but so has Kim. She and business partner-spouse Conrad Leifur have decided it's time to turn the page. And the next chapter might just be their most exciting one yet.
Sometime in October Sooki & Mimi will close and, after a brief refresh, Kim's will open. It will serve a menu that's built from the chef's Korean-American history.
"I want this to really come from my heart," she said. "I'm 50 years old and I'm ready to step into my power."
And that's why the menu will draw not just from Korea, the country she and her family left when she was a child, but also 1970s America, where they landed. "My palate comes from parents who came here in the '70s. In some ways the people who came here, their Korean has been preserved. Also, raised in the Midwest and you're having to make do with what you can, because ingredients are hard to source."
The menu will also be designed in a way that even those who didn't have parents making gojuchang from scratch will be able to navigate it. "There's nothing worse than going into a restaurant and feeling alienated," said Kim. "Or you don't know how to pronounce something. Our servers will be able to guide a diner, but people will be able to understand the menu."
Expect to find lots of noodle and rice dishes; soups and stews with some proteins, and plenty of vegetables. "To me, these dishes have a lot of soul," she said. "They will be bold and funky with plenty for vegetarians and even some vegan options."
There also will be a robust offering of banchan, the ever-present collection of small dishes that are popular in Korean cuisine. On this menu, they'll probably be called sides and include dishes like a special homemade napa cabbage kimchi.
The Basement Bar menu will focus on finger food, including buckets of Korean fried chicken and sides of Korean potato salad.
Kim and her team are toying with the idea of eliminating reservations. Instead, diners can just swing in and grab a bite, or take a seat to wait in the bar if the dining room happens to be full.
It's a restaurant whose time has come, both for Kim and for the neighborhood. Kim, who famously brought down the house by swearing off fear in her 2019 James Beard Award acceptance speech, admits that it was fear that kept her from fully stepping into the idea of opening a Korean restaurant. It's a cuisine with limited representation in the Twin Cities, but at Kim's other restaurants — Pizzeria Lola, Hello Pizza and Young Joni — Korean ingredients and dishes from her family's table have slowly been making their way onto the menus and into the hearts and stomachs of local diners.
It's also an infusion of spice and excitement for Uptown. Nearby Hennepin Avenue has seen a decrease in foot traffic, and several businesses have closed, including many inside Seven Points mall.
"The neighborhood needs something new and fresh — the best of what we can be," said Kim.
She said someone pointed out that the restaurant's former tenant, Lucia's, an icon of the Twin Cities restaurant scene, was named for its chef and owner. Kim's is ready to take that legacy and modernize it.
"The pandemic was so heavy. It's time for a lighter energy and excitement," she said. "We can do that with Kim's. We can have fun again."
Sooki & Mimi, 1432 W. 31st St., Mpls., sookiandmimi.com