Global pandemic aside, chef Kevin Tien has had a rollercoaster of a year. The 33-year old chef left his tiny first restaurant Himitsu—for which he earned nods from James Beard and Bon Appetit—last August. He then opened one of DC’s most buzzed-about dining rooms, Emilie’s, roughly two months later. But after just eight months, Tien left there, too. He cited that he and his business partners had different visions for the Capitol Hill hotspot. Since then he’s continued with his popular Ballston chicken-sandwich spot Hot Lola’s, launched a new Asian barbecue concept, and recently married his fiancee Emilie—the namesake of his former restaurant.
Now, Tien is ready for his next adventure: Moon Rabbit, a contemporary Vietnamese restaurant that will open by the end of October* in the InterContinental at the Wharf. As Tien tells it, management for the luxury hotel contacted him after another high-profile chef, Kwame Onwuachi, left Kith and Kin there in July. Since then, the former Afro-Caribbean restaurant has been closed, and the waterfront dining room has undergone a transformation with custom art work from Atlanta-based artist Tran Nguyen. There’s now loads of lush greenery—a tribute to Tien’s Vietnamese grandmother, whose house is filled with plants.
Like everything else Tien has done, Moon Rabbit feels like a personal venture.
“When Covid started, I started cooking more Vietnamese food to reconnect with my family and background—recipes my mom and grandma taught me,” says Tien. The chef, who is of Vietnamese and American descent, grew up in Louisiana.
For Moon Rabbit, Tien will reinterpret those family recipes—including lesser-seen regional dishes and those native to Saigon, where his grandmother grew up—using modern techniques. “A lot of people think of Vietnamese food as pho, rice plates, and noodle bowls. You won’t see much, if any of that, on our menu,” Tien says.
Instead, the chef has been busy reinventing his grandmother’s congee. Instead of the rice stew with ginger and chicken, Tien’s version stars creamy Carolina Gold rice cooked in seafood stock with local crab and “tons of textures.” He’s also toying with grilled prawns, chicken liver pate with figs, and a riff on his family’s version of bo luc lac (shaking beef), which they make with loads of peppercorns, in the style of a French au poivre sauce. He’s already invited his mother and grandmother—in town recently for his wedding—into the restaurant to test out the new dishes.
“I haven’t seen my grandmother in 20 years. They both have never had my cooking before. It was fun to hear what they thought of it,” says Tien. So did they approve? “I can always improve everything,” he jokes.“Vietnamese parents are the toughest critics.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Tien told Washingtonian that he wouldn’t reopen the dining room at Emilie’s until there was a vaccine. He says he was encouraged by the safety precautions of the hotel, he says are “far above the standard regulations.” At Moon Rabbit, he’s planning a slow, safety-conscious roll-out. The restaurant will be open for dinner only (there’s an outdoor patio in nice weather), eventually followed by a more casual lunch. He’s not planning to do any takeout, and catered events at the hotel are limited to mini-gatherings and micro-weddings.
Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it, the restaurant’s name nods to the pandemic autumn in which it’s opening. The “moon rabbit,” celebrated in Vietnam’s fall festivals, is a mythological character. In the legend, a common rabbit sacrifices itself on a fire to feed the moon emperor, who’s disguised as a beggar. The emperor pulls the rabbit from the fire, rewarding the creature for its virtuous, selfless nature by bringing it to the moon and giving it an elixir of eternal life.
“I thought a lot about the rabbit and how much he sacrificed himself for others. It’s literally what the restaurant industry is doing during the pandemic, and it’s very in line with what the industry always does,” says Tien. “Everyone is still going to work, putting themselves at risk, and providing for their staff, friends, and family. It really resonates with me right now.”
Moon Rabbit. 801 Wharf St., SW.
*This story has been updated with a new opening timeline from Moon Rabbit.