There had to be fried chicken at Emilie’s. Of course there did.
For Kevin Tien, the chef-partner behind the cuisine-colliding, communal-eating restaurant that opens tonight in Capitol Hill, it was never a question. The Lafayette, Louisiana, native built a significant portion of his rep on the gochujang-glazed karaage and biscuits he concocted at nationally recognized Himitsu. He made his foray into fast casual this year with a food hall stall built around Sichuan-spiced Nashville hot chicken sandwiches.
Although Tien took his recipes with him when he left Himitsu last month, he wants to make new hits, not play the old ones. Now that he’s overseeing a chef team of four other cooks culled from top D.C. kitchens, he’s spending more time as a manager and a sounding board. So yes, there will be fried chicken, but it’s a new invention, a ranch-flavored bird that came to team member Davy Bourne in a dream.
“If I didn’t have fried chicken on the menu here, would it really be a restaurant owned by me?” Tien asks rhetorically.
At Emilie’s, the chicken gets brined in a buttermilk solution full of herbs. Ranch spices coat the battered bird, too. It’s served with a handful of fresh dill, a side of ranch, a bright orange hot sauce workshopped by Autumn Cline, bread and butter zucchini pickles, deviled eggs sporting spoonfuls of caviar, and thick slices of a Texas Toast modeled after loaves from Holsum brand.
That spread is one of three large-format dishes anchoring a menu that’s full of contributions from Tien’s team but remains highly personal to the chef. Fried chicken has a natural tie to his Louisiana roots. The other two mains — a grilled Vietnamese pork blade steak and a whole branzino — respectively reference his Vietnamese heritage and group meals he used to eat with Chinese cousins.
The pork comes with bánh hỏi, woven blankets of rice vermicelli customers can use to wrap slices of steak before adding a lettuce shell and dipping the impromptu roll in nuoc cham. Aside from using heritage breed pork from the Shenandoah Valley, Tien says there’s little difference between the dish at Emilie’s and what customers might find at a Vietnamese place in Eden Center.
The branzino comes with white rice, a bowl of crispy maitake mushrooms, a side of greens, and cups of hot dashi for sipping.
While those three dishes seem celebratory, Tien is careful to point out that the rest of the menu lends itself to more commonplace meals. Emilie’s is taking reservations but also setting aside several parts of a 100-seat dining room and bar for walk-ins.
Bread is the first item listed: Emilie’s makes a deep-dish focaccia and a whole wheat sourdough rooted in grain milled in Pennsylvania. Roving carts will carry dips and spreads (nori butter with cane syrup, whipped mascarpone with pepper jelly) along with pickles and ferments like beet kimchi, eggplants marinated in the style of Spanish white anchovies, and gigante beans packing a lot of paprika. Beef tartare comes mixed with cured egg yolk, crab fat mustard, and pecorino.
If people want pasta, there are bowls of champon noodles coated in a white miso butter sauce and lots of cracked pepper, a play on cacio e pepe without the cheese.
For vegetarians, there’s a charred, compressed radicchio in teriyaki on a pool of spicy mayo “yum yum sauce.” Sweet potatoes in a miso-laced pumpkin seed mole add a Latin dish to the lineup.
Like many chefs these days, Tien gravitates to savory desserts. That explains the mala sundae with Sichuan chocolate and chile crunch.
Executive pastry chef Willa Pelini, who was once Tien’s boss at Pineapple and Pearls, can be seen wheeling a cart of sweets that includes salted rye chocolate chip cookies with sweetened milk and rosemary doughnuts filled with concord grape jam.
A cake oozing with Nordic gjetost cheese is the pride of pastry team.
Emilie’s (1101 Pennsylvania Avenue SE) is open from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday with an 11 p.m. close on Friday and Saturday