Image: Ocean Trout Crudo with Scallion Kimchi
Last Updated: 9/27/2020
Current Status: The restaurant imploded, but limps along after losing its chef and raison d’etre. Emilie’s is doing Take-out and Delivery. They also have some standard and unique pantry items for sale.
Before Times Review:
Last Visit: December 2019
Chef Kevin Tien’s grand space signals ambition and hope and it heralds success. He has assembled one of the most impressive opening teams you can imagine, with respected veterans both in the front of the house and in the kitchen. Tien’s talent as a chef continues to develop with the dishes on a long but somehow focused menu. The team ensured that the opening few weeks felt like a well-oiled machine to diners (though I’m sure it was not that smooth behind the scenes). It is easy to imagine this restaurant creating a legacy.
Tien made his name at Himitsu, which served Japanese inspired, New American-ish cuisine. He brings the same ability to work in less-known and interesting flavors. He is clear that he does not want to be limited to one culinary tradition. In a recent interview he said, “I’m just here to cook. It’s ‘fusion’ because I’m an Asian guy. … But if it’s like a white guy using Asian flavors in his food, then he’s just being progressive, contemporary new American.” Despite the playful combinations and progressive approach, there is a degree of restraint. The ocean trout crudo came with an pear slice and a small dollop of scallion kimchi mixed with labne. In the case of the flat iron steak, the mustard sauce, sesame seeds, and crunchy garlic became the primary flavor with the meat playing a creamy supporting role.
To start there is bread and spreads. This deserves its own paragraph. The sourdough is insanely good and it is hard to resist having just one more bite, and, unlike Rooster & Owl, they will not cut you off. The doughy focaccia is nearly as addictive. The spreads you can choose from make them even better. The early winner is Sichuan Honey Butter. The liver mouse with chili and five-spice is the exception to the restraint mentioned above. But pace yourself, because there is much more to choose from after the bread.
One of the gimmicks is two rolling carts with small plates. There is a sweet one for later, but the savory one is made of “Pickles & Ferments” that include choices like eggplant strings, gigante beans, and mustard greens. The sharp staff, in addition to keeping the carts on schedule for the proper point in the meal for each table, may also flag the need to coordinate early snacks with later mains so you don’t double up on something needlessly. The larger dishes come in two sizes. There are more than a handful of shared plates. The cavatelli is dressed with something called vegetable ‘nduja, but it works like a creamy sauce with a little kick. We agree with Rick that the sweet potato does not quite sing, but it does hum along nicely. There are also larger format dishes. Lori Gardner, of Been There Eaten That, is waging a campaign to keep the Branzino among the choices (on the last visit it was downgraded to a small plate version rather than the whole, head-on version). The fried chicken looked impressive as it went past. One note of caution, Tien does not go easy on the salt, drink water accordingly. Emilie’s boasts two excellent pastry chefs who supply the smaller choices on the cart – the salted rye chocolate chip cookie with fancy milk is sublime – and larger desserts like the cranberry curd filled doughnuts with salt and pepper sprinkled on top.
The service leaves a positive impression with what seems to be a cast of thousands coming and going from the table, but all capable of stepping up. The person who ran food, turned on a dime to explain a wine offering. They are present without being intrusive or obsequious. With the servers, runners, somms and two roving carts, it can approach a Tolstoy novel with the risk of sprawling into chaos but it manages to work.
As you can imagine, the beverage list is interesting and covers a lot. The wines include some offbeat choices, like “orange” wine, and familiar varietals but from less known producers or regions. There are also Madeira and Sherry choices. For a new restaurant, they have built out an impressive program quickly under Sommelier Alaina Dyne, who previously did stints at Komi, Little Serow, Ellē, and Del Mar. The list has hints of many of those stops. Be brave and allow yourself to be surprised by an offbeat choice.
Now the bad news. Reservations are hard to come by. The place is a hit. But they can be found with flexibility, patience and planning. If you can get in, we recommend you go, even if it requires splurging for the car ride to get there.
Other Guidance: Despite its ambition, Emilie’s still has the feel of a neighborhood spot. Nothing fancy is required to fit in. There are many vegetable and GF options and asking your server will probably reveal some that are not obvious or can be easily substituted. Washingtonian says, “The entire restaurant–including bathrooms and chef’s counter–is wheelchair accessible.”
Washington Post: Tom’s positive First Bite, “Emilie’s tastes great, now.”
Lori: She is a big fan of the Branzino, and other things.