The following review is part of The Washington Post's 2017 Fall Dining Guide Top 10 countdown.
Himitsu: 828 Upshur St. NW. No phone. himitsudc.com
Prices: Cold and hot plates $14-$46.
Sound check: 71 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
The Top 10:
The following review appeared in The Washington Post's 2017 Spring Dining Guide.
Talk about good things in pocket-size packages! Himitsu made its debut in November with a mere 24 seats and major attributes in the form of co-owners Kevin Tien and Carlie Steiner. They're the chef and bar maven, respectively, of a gem of a restaurant with a Japanese bent. From the open kitchen flow small plates of distinction: egg custard with ginger and sea urchin, whole fried shrimp in a host of warm spices, amberjack and apples in a terrific salad. The dish that has everyone talking is a variation on Peking duck, rosy slices of meat kissed with five-spice powder and flanked with baked-to-order biscuits in the role of traditional pancakes. The one drawback? No reservations. Good thing Himitsu is flexible about closing time. If people are coming, the chef keeps cooking.
The following review was originally published March 1, 2017
Himitsu review: This Petworth jewel is a secret no more
Time was, cooks dominated the kitchen, servers held sway in the dining room and dinner began with "Good evening" rather than "Let us know if you have any food allergies."
In 2017, it's not unusual for a chef to bring you your food, a server to wash dishes between orders and an entire menu to be tailored for the gluten-intolerant.
The new way of business describes Himitsu, a modern Japanese restaurant in Petworth whose captivating food and beguiling service make up for the fact that it doesn't take reservations, lacks a phone and can seat two dozen diners, max. Behind the brand are chef Kevin Tien and drinks guru Carlie Steiner, whose résumés include some of Washington's top tables and whose young establishment is a case study in contemporary dining.
A few courses in, it's impossible to think of Himitsu without either owner.
Steiner, a graduate of Barmini in Penn Quarter, is the first face you're apt to see. Even if you're not much of a drinker, you have to admire the attention she devotes to beverages. Her list is a snapshot of trends — sherry is the quaff of choice with the food, and you may be encouraged to give amber wine from the country of Georgia a whirl — although if you want a local beer or a classic cocktail, Himitsu obliges. Don't imbibe? Steiner offers a handful of booze-free drinks, including an ace pineapple-allspice shrub, listed under "Temperance."
It's not immediately obvious which cook is Tien, who last worked at the four-star Pineapple and Pearls on Capitol Hill and shares his open kitchen with a bartender. Everyone seems to be doing everything, with little regard for hierarchy. What's crystal clear is the quality of the food, starting with some of the finest snacks now playing.
A bowl of deep-fried Brussels sprouts, flagged as vegan, is a dish everyone can rally around. Halves are tossed in a sweet chili sauce along with rice that's toasted and ground by hand and a window box of fresh herbs: spearmint, cilantro and Thai basil, among other bright accents. The Japanese egg custard called chawanmushi tastes newly exciting with ginger in its flavoring and garnishes of sea urchin and glistening salmon roe. Each silken spoonful delivers something warm, something cool and a gentle pop as the beads of caviar break in the mouth.
Then there are sweet shrimp, a few inches long, fried whole and tossed in a host of warm seasonings, from clove to cumin. You may be reluctant to eat the head and bodies, but you'll be glad you did; if the ocean made barbecue potato chips, these are what they might taste like.
Tien's first restaurant gig was in a sushi restaurant in his native Louisiana, where he says he learned not to send out anything less than perfect. That's your cue to order some sushi, loose pads of rice draped with very good fish — or not. (Japanese eggplant, among a dozen or so choices, makes an excellent topper after it's been brushed with yuzu miso and lightly torched.)
The rest of the menu is divided between cold plates, featuring fish, and hot ones. The former include a quail egg-topped tuna tartare made with chunks of lush bigeye tuna and eaten with scoops snapped off a sail of sesame rice cracker — my idea of chips and dip — and an artful fish salad. Ribbons of Japanese amberjack and magenta radishes are staged as if for a fashion shoot with creme fraiche and pickled apples, tangy as kimchi.
Tien and crew make vegetarians and vegans feel like first-class citizens, offering meatless versions of most of their hot plates. A draw since Himitsu opened in November: salt and pepper tofu, deep-fried cubes of custardy tofu in a bowl of dashi invigorated with ginger and scallions. (If you don't ask for the vegetarian take, the standard version is animated by bonito flakes, shavings of preserved fish that flutter from the heat of the dish.)
This is, for the most part, food that tastes like a celebration but is priced for workday consumption. The hot and cold plates, basically entrees, average $17. And every month seems to find an expanded selection of dishes and drinks.
Little bigger than a studio apartment, the restaurant, formerly Crane & Turtle, has the air of a dinner party with a few friendly strangers squeezed in. Eight stools form a half circle around the visible kitchen; the rest of the seats fill out the space, its whiteness replaced here and there with a splash of blue or a green plant. In Japanese, Himitsu means "secret." The lines out the door at opening time, Saturday in particular, suggest the word is out.
A tip from Tien: If you can't be there at opening time (5 p.m.), try to show up at least before 6 p.m. weeknights or after 9:30 on weekends. Himitsu is flexible about when it closes, says the chef. As long as people are showing up, the owners will serve them.
Early on, the crack dish here was buttermilk-brined chicken, shocked with chile sauce, fried so you could hear it crackle, and dropped off with homemade sweet pickles. More recently, a riff on Peking duck has assumed the mantle of Must Get Dish. You order it, assuming the duck is the big deal, and it is, plump breast seasoned with five-spice powder, sugar and salt and presented as blushing slices. But just as compelling is the choice of starch: baked-to-order biscuits instead of the traditional thin pancakes. The platter includes sliced cucumbers, pickled red onions and hoisin sauce, from which diners assemble ducky sandwiches. I, for one, am always sorry to see a clean plate. To drink, Steiner might pull out a dear Grenache, using the increasingly familiar Coravin device to extract a glass or two and preserve the rest.
A bite of glorious duck, a sip of wonderful wine — it's as substantial a pairing as Tien and Steiner. Catch you in line.