The founding chef of Himitsu, the tiny, cuisine-hopping restaurant that helped put Petworth on the map as a dining destination for national critics, is leaving after three years of award-winning service. Kevin Tien is giving up his ownership stake and turning over full control to partner and beverage director Carlie Steiner so he can focus on opening Emilie’s, a massive family-style restaurant coming soon to Capitol Hill.
Tien will work at Himitsu through September 15, and Emilie’s will open soon thereafter. Himitsu will close for minor renovations and training before reopening with an entirely new menu developed by a new chef, Amanda Moll, who just left her post as executive sous chef at 14th Street Southeast Asian restaurant Doi Moi. Steiner moved to hire Moll, and Tien, 32, is happy to pass the torch to a 26-year-old tackling her first executive chef role.
“I think Amanda is in the very same position that I was in when I first opened Himitsu and started cooking,” Tien says. “The restaurant itself is kind of like a blank canvas. We’ve always made it a place to express ourselves through our food and our staff. I think it’s time for someone younger … to kind of like make their mark in the D.C. food scene.”
Both Tien and Steiner tell Eater the split was amicable, and it made the most sense for all parties involved. In addition to opening Emilie’s, which he says has 5,000 square feet and is located near his home, Tien is just months removed from opening Hot Lola’s, a counter for Sichuan-style Nashville hot chicken sandwiches inside the Quarter Market food hall in Ballston.
Steiner recently co-founded Dos Mamis, a bright cocktail and wine bar across the street from Himitsu, so she’s put down more roots on Upshur Street NW.
Tien is a Lafayette, Louisiana, native with Vietnamese heritage who cut his teeth as a sushi chef. After leaving José Andrés’s D.C. Mexican restaurant, Oyamel, Tien developed an individualized style at Himitsu that melded flavors and techniques from Southeast Asia, the American South, and Latin America. That approach — combined with Steiner’s impeccable service direction, wine selection, and pun-heavy cocktails — made the small restaurant in a quiet family neighborhood blow up on a national scale.
Not long after Himitsu opened in the fall of 2016, Eater named it D.C. Restaurant of the Year and one of the 12 best new restaurants in the America. Bon Appétit named Himitsu one of its 50 best new restaurants nationwide, and Food & Wine named Tien one of its best new chefs. Tien was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Rising Star Chef award in 2018. That year he competed on Food Network’s Iron Chef Gauntlet. Late last year, Washington Post critic gave Himitsu a rare 3 1⁄2-star review.
“For Himitsu to be where it is now, with accolades and the recognition, it’s proof that if you do something you love and you care about what you do and you put all your heart and your focus into it, something beautiful can be born out of it,” Tien says. “I just wanted to make sure that our new restaurant, we had the same opportunity with me being focused on the team and focused on the food, so something else can be beautiful for the Eastern Market neighborhood.”
At Emilie’s, Tien will again tackle what he’s calling a new American style of cooking that “is going to be representative of how America really eats.” He envisions is as a “true sharing experience” with “lots of spreads and breads.”
Moll, Steiner’s handpicked woman for the job at Himitsu, is already in the kitchen plotting new dishes. Steiner says the format of the menu will still be the same — guests can expect sharable plates and a selection of raw fish dishes — but she’s collaborating with Moll to introduce more Mediterranean influences to the Southeast Asian-leaning menu and inject even more whimsy.
Himitsu has always frequently rotated dishes off the menu, much to the chagrin of fans of Tien’s gochujang-glazed karaage-style fried chicken and biscuits. The one dish that always stayed was a hamachi crudo in fish sauce vinaigrette, but Steiner says she’s agreed to take all of Tien’s work off the menu.
When it reopens, Moll and Steiner will introduce a Mediterranean hamachi with za’atar, house labneh, pomegranate, zhug, and preserved lemons. There’s also talk of a tagine with Peruvian green rice, rainbow-colored soup dumplings dyed naturally with ingredients like beets and butterfly pea flower, and a rotating burger of the week that will incorporate wagyu beef trimmings.
Steiner says “change is weird,” but she’s excited to empower Moll, a longtime friend who mirrors her boundless energy. She thinks so much of Himitsu’s identity comes from close quarters that generate big lines and show “intimate” service isn’t just a marketing cliche.
“What I really want to make so clear is we will not lose the energy of the restaurant,” Steiner says. “We are excited to see chef Kevin have new ventures and a new opportunity, but we’re not going to lose that feeling.”