In times of trouble, Kevin Tien turns to banh mi.
As the hospitality industry navigates a city-wide shutdown of on-site dining to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, the chef-owner of Emilie’s has converted one of the city’s most intriguing new restaurants into a Vietnamese takeout joint. Instead of offering a communal-minded menu of meticulous crudos, Asian-American pastas, and group plates of ranch-flavored fried chicken or grilled pork blade steak, the kitchen is now producing a carry-out menu with $6 orders of fried pork and shrimp spring rolls and $12 lemongrass pork and pate sandwiches built on Amaroso’s rolls.
“I just want to be able to provide food that’s comforting to me when I’m stressed out,” says Tien, who garnered national attention at similarly eclectic Himitsu before opening Emilie’s last fall. “When I’m stressed out, boy do I want to eat a bunch of Vietnamese food.”
Tien’s Vietnamese heritage, Gulf Coast upbringing, and experience in sushi and Mexican restaurants has made his cooking style tough to categorize — he likes to call it New American. The takeout menu will change a lot, he says, but the first iteration mostly adheres to the Vietnamese tag at a more affordable price than customers would usually find at Emilie’s.
There’s a cabbage salad in fish sauce vinaigrette for $10, and rice bowls — with sauteed pea leaves or lemongrass chicken, fish sauce dressing, daikon, carrots, fried shallots, and peanuts — for $16. Executive pastry chef Willa Pelini has her salted rye chocolate chip cookies (two for $4) and a $10 portion of a yellow cake with passion fruit, saffron buttercream, and pistachios.
Emilie’s is also emptying its pantry by selling half-loaves of breads ( focaccia, sesame sourdough, white) for $5. Portions of fresh champon noodles ($1) and cavatelli ($2) can be cooked at home with a brief dunk in boiling water. There are also pickles and jams ($3 to $5), and the restaurant is putting a 40 percent discount on all of its wine bottles.
The takeout menu is available from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. The market opens at 1 p.m. Orders can be called in (202-544-4368) or placed via email at FeedMe@emiliesdc.com
Monday was the first day of takeout at Emilie’s, with Tien implementing the switch shortly before D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced restaurants could no longer serve sit-down customers. Tien says he got the idea to go casual from Seattle restaurant Canlis. The executive chef there, Brady Williams, was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine along with Tien in 2018.
Other chefs of higher-priced D.C. restaurants are also rejiggering their operations for takeout, like Johnny Spero prepping $18 carry-out cheeseburgers at Reverie or Johnny Monis preparing to turn Komi’s Happy Gyro pop-up into a take-away operation for vegetarian Greek diner fare.
Tien describes closing the dining room in his months-old restaurant as an “emotional roller coaster.” He says he’s limited shifts for all his staff and has worked to make sure that everyone is sharing that burden equally.
“You spend all this time building this restaurant, and you build this team, and they put all this trust in you to build this new restaurant, and then shit hits the fan,” he says. “It’s figuring out how to get through this time period, because no one else has experienced this before.”