Grilled pork blade steak, for instance, requires some assembly. The pork marinates for three days in lemongrass, ginger, garlic and brown sugar. When the meat meets the grill, Tien sprinkles on more sugar, which quickly morphs into a light caramel. Diners are instructed to bundle the sliced meat, along with woven rice noodles and a selection of condiments, in lettuce wraps. The combined flavors and whiff of smoke take me back to the streets of Vietnam.
Some of the food arrives on carts that traverse the dining room, turning heads in the process. The mere sight of a golden heap of craggy fried chicken en route to other diners has everyone at my table nodding. Tien, a Louisiana native and the talent behind Hot Lola’s in Arlington, is a master of the fried chicken genre. When the feast, replete with Texas toast and bread-and-butter pickles, finds its way to our table, fingers and forks fly into action. The goodness comes from soaking the bird in buttermilk and fresh herbs — yep, ranch dressing — and, once it hits the table, zapping the fried parts with a vivid orange hot sauce made with fermented chiles. Wow and yeow.
I’m getting ahead of myself, however. Your first taste of the place should be a dip or something fermented. Tien’s spreads include such intrigues as chicken liver mousse, ultrasmooth and hinting of warm spices, and subtly sweet seaweed butter. Little bowls of vegetables — beet kimchi, crisp long beans, pleasantly sour marinated eggplant ribbons — promote interaction, too (reaching as much as sharing, to be honest). The snacks are best eaten with Emilie’s house-baked focaccia and whole-wheat sourdough. Coming up, says Tien: Parker House rolls veined with scallions and shallots, a riff on Chinese scallion pancakes.
His food is without borders. Near-melting scallop crudo set off with fried okra sports a serious tropical tang, thanks to lime leaf and chile oils on the surface. Champon noodles slicked with miso butter, dressed with slivered celery and excited with cracked black pepper is a pasta you’ll find yourself thinking about long after you slurped the last strand.
The light- and plant-filled corner restaurant seats about 150, counting the extra space designated for overflow and private events. (Frager’s Hardware is now Emilie’s next-door neighbor. “I’m there once a day to get something for the restaurant,” says Tien.) The name turns out to be a shout-out to a dear Tien family friend, whose daughter is named Emilie, and the chef’s fiancee, who spells her name Emily. Early in their relationship, the couple made a habit of the Hill, where Emily Potter had an internship and the two frequented Eastern Market.
If you eat out with any regularity, you might recognize some familiar faces attending to you. The dining room staff is composed of veterans from some of Washington’s best charmers: Elle, Pineapple and Pearls, even Himitsu.
One cool design feature is the yard of space between the big open kitchen and the chef-facing counter, ensuring no diner is ever served from behind. The overall idea for the interior, says Tien: “We want it to look great in 10 years.”
I admire the chef’s confidence. A decade is a long time in the restaurant business. Already, and most significantly, Emilie’s tastes great, now.
1101 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-544-4368. emiliesdc.com. Dishes to be shared, $9 to $48.