So happy to welcome Kathryn Duval as a THIH contributor! You may recall Kate’s awesome Instagram takeover back in August, where her bubbly personality and love for the neighborhood were both evident. Welcome to the THIH family, Kate! –Maria Helena Carey
The saying goes that fire allows for a new beginning. And so, there is no more fitting spot for Kevin Tien’s new restaurant, Emilie’s, than where a fateful fire destroyed Frager’s. Locals were delighted earlier this summer when the veteran institution re-opened the doors of its original location after the fire of 2013. Adding to the fanfare, a placard on the far east portion of the building announced a soon-to-be-opened restaurant from Himitu’s former top boss. (Where the paint shop would have been– Maria)
Tien has remade himself many times over in the DC food scene: He blossomed at Jose Andres’s Oyamel, was sous-chef at Momofuku DC, and led the runaway success Himitsu in Petworth. In October, Tien opened the doors to Emilie’s, Capitol Hill’s newest, buzziest, most-West-Elmiest eatery. The name celebrates several generations of women close to Tien’s family, and that familial concept is imbued throughout the restaurant.
It feels like a purposeful inverse of Himitsu. Where Himitsu was a shoebox, Emilie’s interior is expansive. Himitsu’s dishes arrived tableside as carefully wrapped presents you discovered with your dining partner in secret, where Emilie’s nod to dim-sum is a rolling cart of pickled goodies that entice diners between courses. Himitsu was a space so small that you often resented the proximity to other diners “intruding” on your meal, but Emilie’s has the feel of a warm dinner party, with people mingling and sharing bites. The chef’s counter is cut away from the kitchen to the exact width of the rolling cart, one of the most clever features of this space.
The bar culture at Emilie’s takes the “less is more” approach in contrast to other spots on the Hill, offering a small but varied list: five individual cocktail choices, a pitcher of martinis (hello!), and a collaborative option reminiscent of now-shuttered Kyrisan’s “dealer’s choice” mystery cocktail. The wine list pops with the option of orange wine included amongst the bubblies, reds, roses, and whites. The service team strikes a perfect balance of knowledgeable without making you feel like an idiot for thinking orange wine would taste like Crush soda (it didn’t, but it did smell remarkably like Gushers candy). When asked for a collaborative cocktail in the spirit of a bee’s knees, I was delivered a perfect little coupe that tasted like the cocktail had gone to the spa, had a steam bath, and been wrapped up in mint and cucumber towels before being sent my way. About halfway through the drink, it stopped being tart and started being spicy, a trick I’m still trying to understand a week after finishing it.
The bread is a necessity. If you’re the type who gets upset when a basket of complimentary buns isn’t refilled immediately, you will be shook to learn that the bread at Emilie’s is $9. That said, I can’t think of a better use of $9 than on this perfect carb vessel; light, fluffy, flavorful and at the point of extra toasty on the outside without being burned. If Paul Hollywood lived in DC, he’d be doling out handshakes left and right for this bread. Plus, when you get a bread, you get a dip for free, so it’s the same math that talks you into buying a second pair of pants at a BOGO sale even though you only needed the one. We went for the bread special, a sesame bread paired with scallop butter, and it blew my mind. Salty, creamy, fishy but not too fishy, this spread was a wild flavor ride, and I want to ride it again and again.
The rolling cart o’ delights made its way to us after the bread course, and we chose a pickled eggplant dish and a bean dish. The eggplant was memorable for its flavor and texture but the beans were memorable for tricking me into thinking they would be as good as the eggplant and instead just tasting like plain beans. The rolling cart, it gives and it takes.
The beef tartare was exceptional: a rich, spicy, fatty membrane that tasted like the most decadent, upscale Big Mac you’ve ever had. The ricotta cavatelli has all the flavor of a smoked andouille sausage minus the actual meat, and that taste is cut perfectly with a mustard green against the most al dente little noodle pillow you could ever want. This was the portion of the meal where I felt like I was transcending into heaven, and I was 100% ready for it.
For an entrée, you have the option of a whole branzino, a pork steak, or Tien’s specialty: fried chicken. If you were lucky enough to savor the fried chicken mini sandwiches at Himitsu, or slurp the fried chicken-inspired ramen at Momo, you know this Louisiana native has his fried chicken game on lock. I can neither confirm nor deny if that’s the case here, because I chose the pork steak, but if you go and you get the fried chicken, please tell me how good it was. You’re served Bibb lettuce, radish, mint, basil, jalapeño, and cilantro in small containers, and then the pre-cut pork steak appears nestled on top of little noodle sleeping bags, next to pots of tart fish sauce and peanut sauce. If you’ve ever made a lettuce wrap at home, you know the process: dump everything into the Bibb, fold it up like a taco, and enjoy. This concept works well for the most part, but be warned that some of the fattiest parts of the steak are tucked inside the pre-cut strips, so you might want to extract them before popping the whole thing in your mouth and spending the next five minutes shredding through the gristle.
The rolling sides cart does a costume change later in the evening to become a dessert cart, and the fancy milk and cookies serve as a perfect sweet bite to share after such a large, indulgent meal.
There’s something special about Emilie’s, from the vibe to the coursing to the rotating offerings of fresh, delicious items. Fans of Himitsu might argue that Tien didn’t need to innovate or start a new chapter at the height of his most acclaimed project to date. But his newest venture is an extension of all the pillars of great dining and atmosphere, and we on the Hill are all the luckier for it.
IF YOU GO:
What: Emilie’s, the new Kevin Tien restaurant in Eastern Market
Where: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave SE
When: Tuesday – Thursday from 5-10 p.m.; Friday – Saturday, 5-11 p.m. Closed Sundays and Mondays.
What else: Reservations available on Resy, and a portion of tables are held for walk-ins every day. If you’re planning on walking in for a table on the weekend, get there when the doors open at 5 p.m.
Kathryn Duval is a D.C. transplant by way of Chicago, Boston, and Buffalo, NY. She has lived on the Hill since 2017, and can most frequently be found perusing the stalls at Eastern Market (where she’s getting married next year!) or pushing the limits of hashtag allowances on Instagram @kate_duval.