Chef Kevin Tien’s modern Vietnamese marvel Moon Rabbit made a triumphant comeback to D.C. on Monday, January 15 (927-929 F Street NW), reopening a 30-minute walk north from the Wharf original that suddenly closed last spring.
Menu prep work started months ago, long before the new Penn Quarter location was even announced, when Meyer lemons began patiently pickling behind the scenes in clear glass jars. The preserved fruit now finds a home in both a low-ABV highball — a slightly sour palate opener finished with the edible salted rind — as well as on a plate, as the kombucha base for his vibrant crudo. That kind of cross-pollination between the bar and kitchen is what Moon Rabbit 2.0 is all about, says Tien, giving true meaning to now-ubiquitous restaurant lingo like “zero waste” and “suggested cocktail pairings.”
Tien’s homemade fish sauce is another unexpected element that shows up in a cocktail. Bar director Thi Nguyen manages to work the pungent Vietnamese condiment into the aromatic “Out Of Dipping Sauce,” cutting the sauce’s savoriness with vodka, passionfruit liqueur, and lemon to produce the equivalent of a highly drinkable dish. A generous garnish of mint, basil, and shiso leaves riffs on the idea of dunking lettuce wraps into fish sauce.
“All the flavors go well on the palate. You don’t even think you’re drinking fish sauce — it’s got great subtleness and undertones,” says Nguyen. Returning pastry chef Susan Bae also finds room for fish sauce caramel in her green curry sponge cake finale.
Moon Rabbit’s anticipated reopening coincides with its participation in RAMW’s Winter Restaurant Week, thus granting the James Beard-nominated chef and his returning team the time perfect a limited lineup of debut dishes before unleashing the entire spread in a couple weeks. Seatings are almost entirely booked through its newly extended Restaurant Week run (until Saturday, January 27), with reservations for regular dinner service starting Friday, February 2.
The 2023 Rammy Award winner for Chef of the Year has an open kitchen to play with this time around, and with fresh digs comes an all-new cast of Vietnamese dishes filled with his familiar contemporary touches. That means he’s moonlighted Moon Rabbit’s crowd-pleasing crawfish noodles, but customers can now get their seafood pasta fix with an order of shrimp agnolotti swimming in a crystal-clear consomme alongside radish and lime leaf oil.
The 3,500-square-foot space, with room for about half as many (100) patrons as the Wharf, was most recently home to short-lived British restaurant Scotts and longtime chocolate-centric standby Co Co. Sala before that. Tien stacked built-in bookshelves with cookbooks from culinary icons, woven textiles and trinkets from Vietnam, and other personal touches from the Lafayette, Louisiana native with Vietnamese heritage. The co-founder of Chefs Stopping AAPI Hate settles into his new Chinatown neighborhood with Lunar New Year events and specials planned for February. Brunch is expected to debut later this winter, followed by lunch.
The promising cocktail program will fully flex in March, when the dining room’s adjoining, library-like scotch club flips into a handsome new bar. The dedicated drinking lair with its own identity will serve a separate selection of cocktails that continue to riff on the cuisine. Rice paper salad, Nguyen’s favorite childhood street food, is the muse for an incoming bourbon cocktail topped with a wooden spoon of beef jerky. A dainty martini presented alongside sliced tomato, okra, and pineapple is made to mimic a deconstructed sweet-and-sour soup. Tien says the bar plans to be the first in the D.C. area to serve a Vietnamese gin.
Moon Rabbit 2.0 also honors Vietnam’s strong coffee culture with a growing list of caffeinated cocktails. “Coffee shops are open 24 hours there,” reports Nguyen, who took a trip back home last year for the first time in a decade. “When you get out of the bar at 1 a.m. you go and drink coffee.”
A “forward and complex” cocktail category includes the perky Sài Gòn by Night built with coconut-washed aged whiskey, sweet vermouth, lemongrass-coffee liqueur, and bitters. A worth-the-wait, slow-drip take is en route to the next-door bar.