“It could be 30 minutes or two hours. What do you want to do?” a young woman alerted the fellow food lover on the other end of the phone about the chance of sneaking in that night at Eater DC’s editor’s choice for Restaurant of the Year, Himitsu.
That conversation, which transpired on the early side of a chilly Wednesday evening, undoubtedly echoed similar arrangements hashed out by others determined to claim one of the two dozen seats inside the Asian-inspired kitchen that’s helped put hospitality-packed Upshur Street NW on the entire country’s to-do list. The excitement felt by those who routinely line up in Petworth for a chance to raise forkfuls of chile-spiked seafood crudos or garlicky roasted chicken to their lips is shared by co-founders Carlie Steiner and Kevin Tien — the daring restaurateurs committed to making their self-styled establishment as awe-inspiring as it can be.
“The most challenging [thing] is staying true to exactly who we are while balancing giving our patrons exactly what they want,” is what Steiner, co-owner of Himitsu and its beverage director, says drives her and fellow co-owner/chef, Kevin Tien, to excel every day.
The self-confident duo set up shop last fall in the former Crane & Turtle space, bringing modern Japanese food and lesser-known wines to the emerging neighborhood. Peers and press quickly took notice.
James Beard Foundation judges nominated Tien for a rising star chef of the year award during the latest go-around. Eater restaurant editor and roving critic Bill Addison named Himitsu one of the 12 best new restaurants in America — the only local establishment to make the cut. It shared the spotlight with neighboring Timber Pizza Company and Michelin-starred Pineapple and Pearls on Bon Appetit’s best new restaurants round up. Steiner and Tien were also in the running for Eater’s annual Young Guns award.
Collecting accolades is not, however, a major concern for the principals.
“The most rewarding thing about Himitsu is watching our staff learn and grow,” Steiner tells Eater. “Knowing we are any part of that is the reason we are in this industry.”
The pair also gets a kick out of guiding patrons’ palates in entirely new directions.
“It’s so so so exciting to watch people take their first sip of a wine with phenolic bitterness,” Steiner says of the satisfaction she gets from seeing customers attempt to wrap their heads around Italian friulano or mourvedre from South Africa.
Tien similarly plays with expectations via carefully composed dishes that borrow liberally from Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Seafood arrives soaked in fish sauce vinaigrette (hamachi), spread across trout roe-topped, buttered brioche (uni toast), or wrapped in crunchy cornmeal (fried oysters), depending on what Tien is feeling that night.
More interested in turf than surf? The kitchen regularly carves out room for meaty selections ranging from fried chicken swabbed in fiery Korean-style chile paste to succulent wagyu beef that’s cooked for five hours in a sous vide bath, lightly seared, and accompanied by fried quail eggs sprinkled with furikake spice and crunchy quinoa.
According to Steiner, dishes cycle off the menu all the time. (A critically acclaimed portion of Parmesan-covered Brussels sprouts tossed in tangy anchovy sauce has lingered for months.) One she’s happy to still see around is fresh yellowtail seasoned with yuzu, Thai chillies, and oranges.
“I could eat it every day of my life,” Steiner says of the popular hamachi dish.
Of course, something will have to disappear in order to make way for the new additions Steiner and Tien have in mind.
“I think we are most excited to push the limits with our rice game,” she says of the agenda for 2018.
Sounds like professional line-standers can count on clocking even more hours outside 828 Upshur Street NW in the coming year.