Before Kevin Tien opened his Capitol Hill restaurant, Emilie’s, he did something unusual: He took his high-level staff on a four-day trip to California. R&D trips are commonplace in the hospitality industry. A chef/restaurateur footing the bill for 11 cooks, managers, and bartenders is not.
The point of the trip wasn’t just to plumb for ideas at of-the-moment restaurants such as Angler in San Francisco and Rustic Canyon in LA. (Thank the former for the winter blankets that will soon be on every Emilie’s chair and the latter for the practice of keeping doggy bags at the host stand.) The real goal was to create an all-in-this-together bond among the staff.
Emilie’s is a big leap for Tien, who shot to fame at the smash-hit Petworth restaurant Himitsu, which he created with former business partner Carlie Steiner. Instead of 24 seats, Tien and company are now responsible for 132. (A patio will add 34 more.) At Himitsu, emojis signaled the chef’s favorite dishes on the menu. Here, servers roll dim sum–style carts from table to table, talking up the virtues of, say, a flavorful vinegar-marinated eggplant or a snowy pandan-coconut custard.
Tien knew he couldn’t pull it off on his own, so, un-chef-like as it is—especially for someone who racked up plenty of national accolades in a short career—he checked his ego at the door and delegated. “A lot of my dishes haven’t made the menu because we’re not 100 percent all happy with them,” he says.
The open kitchen’s starting lineup includes Autumn Cline, the former Rappahannock Oyster Bar chef who this time is chef de cuisine and handles the robust fermentation program. Pineapple and Pearls and Le Diplomate alum Elizabeth Schnettler gracefully manages the plant-filled dining room. Former Himitsu beverage director Nick Gripp is behind the menu of alcoholic and—curiously, more appealing—nonalcoholic cocktails (go for the coconut spritz). Ex–Rose’s Luxury line cook Davy Bourne creates all kinds of dishes, including salads, pastas, and breads.
At Himitsu, Tien’s cooking was rooted in Japanese flavors. Still, he was gutsy enough to add a slathering of Alabama white barbecue sauce to his uni toast. At Emilie’s, his pantry has grown even more global, referencing his Louisiana upbringing, his Vietnamese heritage, or, at various turns, Spain, Italy, Thailand, and China.
Your first order of business should be selecting one of Bourne’s loaves, whether an oversize heel of sourdough presented on a pedestal or a square of pillowy bronze focaccia. Then summon the tray bearing dips and spreads and dabble heavily. I loved the potted mascarpone with pepper jelly and the pho-spiced chicken-liver mousse. (Skippable: the nori butter with cane syrup, unless you’re really into dried seaweed.) Cline’s ferment cart, bearing various pickles, is worth your time, too, for such creations as gigante beans with chorizo and Chinese pickled broccoli.
Even if you’re cacio e pepe’d out—and I am—you should order the kitchen’s cheese-free riff, a superlative toss of knotty noodles with miso butter, black and white pepper, and celery. Follow that with ricotta cavatelli in a creamy, paprika-heavy sauce that, while vegetarian, was inspired by the flavors of ’nduja, the trendy Italian sausage spread.
At Himitsu, Tien was known for his crudos, especially a version with hamachi. He knew he could replicate it here, but that would be the “easy way out,” he says. Still, crudos are all about balance, and the debut raw seafood dish on the Emilie’s menu—sliced scallop in a broth that conjures tom yum soup—was stampeded by lemongrass.
Other dishes are better in theory than in practice. A teriyaki radicchio was an idea born of Tien’s love for hibachi restaurants. Fun! (Seriously, meet me at Benihana anytime.) But the very bitter leaf clashed mightily with the very sweet marinade. Tien is usually a fried-chicken master: He also runs Hot Lola’s, a terrific chicken-sandwich spot in Ballston Quarter. At Emilie’s, the $45 bowl of chicken sure sounded good. It’s basically marinated in ranch dressing, then served with more ranch, housemade hot sauce, and Texas toast. But on the two occasions I tried it, the bird tasted mostly of salt.
That chicken is one of three family-style platters that diners can choose from. The winner is the caramely, charred Vietnamese-style pork, which you bundle into tender gem-lettuce leaves with herbs and vermicelli. There’s also an umami bomb of whole branzino—not a bad thing—which arrives crisp from the griddle and sided with roasted mushrooms, plus ginger-scallion and soy-chili-sesame sauces for dipping.
Rounding out Tien’s team is Pineapple and Pearls alum Willa Pelini, who’s in charge of desserts. She throws lots of savory in with the sweet (salt-and-pepper-dusted doughnuts, a chili-heavy ice-cream sundae). But the confection I’d come back for is the gorgeous molten cake that oozes with gjetost, a Norwegian cheese, and looks like a snow-globe wonderland.
Right now, and it’s early, Emilie’s is exciting, uneven, and always fun—not to mention crowded. My hope for it in 2020? That the very talented Tien steps more onto center stage.
1101 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-544-4368
Open Tuesday through Sunday for dinner.
Dress: The place has a neighborhoody vibe; jeans are fine.
Noise level: The dining room is very loud when packed. Which is all the time.
Accessibility: The entire restaurant–including bathrooms and chef’s counter–is wheelchair accessible.
Best Dishes: Marinated eggplant; mascarpone with pepper jelly; champon noodles; cavatelli; pork steak; gjetost cake.
Price range: Small plates $12 to $18, share plates $45 to $48.
This article appears in the January 2020 issue of Washingtonian.