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At Moon Rabbit, chef Kevin Tien lures fans to the Wharf

Lemongrass pork blade steak at Moon Rabbit. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Unrated during the pandemic

The platter of pork lands on the table with a sigh — mine. Thick slices of steak, cut from the shoulder and strewn with scallions and ginger, share their stage with pickled vegetables, fish sauce vinaigrette, black rice cooked in coconut milk and ruffled lettuce for bundling. Nearby sits a little flower vase sprouting mint and cilantro, ready to be plucked and tucked inside the meaty wraps.

Two of us waste no time assembling and attacking the largesse, one of many incentives to reserve a table, preferably outside, at the upstart Moon Rabbit at the Wharf.

It’s good to be eating Kevin Tien’s cooking again. Four months is too long not to have on display the work of a chef whose dishes filled dining rooms at the late Emilie’s on Capitol Hill, with which he parted ways in June, and the beloved Himitsu in Petworth. My one regret is that Moon Rabbit replaces Kith/Kin, the compelling African-Caribbean experience introduced by Kwame Onwuachi in the InterContinental Washington hotel. At least an equal succeeds an equal. [Tom Sietsema’s 2020 Fall Dining Guide]

Tien’s third time commanding a kitchen finds him exploring his Vietnamese roots. “Covid put things in perspective,” says the Louisiana native, 33, the first person in his family born in the United States. “For so long, I was more American than Vietnamese.” The chef says the pandemic prompted an “identity crisis” that put him in touch with his mother and grandmother, who is honored at Moon Rabbit with a gin-based drink. District 11, refreshing with cucumber and yuzu juice, is meant to evoke trips she took to the market in Saigon. Followers of the chef’s cooking will detect more heat in his food at Moon Rabbit. The fire is thanks to his grandmother, too, an avid gardener who kept in her house a Thai chile plant for grazing.

As at Emilie’s, you buy your bread here. Nine bucks gets you a faintly sweet pineapple milk bun that’s named for its look but is free of fruit and sized for two to share. Rippled hoisin butter makes a fine spread. The roll has a rival for my affection: slices of brioche, stacked Once Upon a Mattress-style on a plate with a rich slather of chicken liver pâté and precise dots of apricot jam. My idea of nirvana is to drag my knife through the pâté and jam so one informs the other. As with the pork blade steak, the chicken liver, sprinkled with airy sea salt, is a welcome carry-over from Emilie’s.

Venison carpaccio doesn’t announce “Vietnam” until you taste the lightly seared meat, nestled in maroon Lolla Rosa lettuce and peppery watercress and flavored with nuoc cham, unusually fiery because its Thai chiles are pureed rather than sliced, dispersing the oils across the tongue. A trio of buttery grilled prawns are accompanied by a green sauce made creamy with sweetened condensed milk, electric with lime juice and tropical with lime leaf. The seafood is nice, but its sauce is the bomb. (The heat in Tien’s cooking is always a pleasant shock, never a thunderbolt.) Crudo was a specialty at Emilie’s. Cue the cured scallops here, sliced and curled over a milky pond of coconut broth, pickled onions and shiso: art you can eat.

Shout out to whoever cuts the radishes in the house salad to look like rabbits and moons, and to the dressing maker for the punch of black vinegar, ginger and garlic.

The appetizers run good-to-great, but when I think about going back, it’s for charred cabbage layered with shaved pineapple. A little smoky, a little sweet, the loose stack of produce is irresistible. Tien adds a romesco sauce that he makes distinctive with roasted peanuts, an accent designed to evoke the seasonings in bun bo hu, beef vermicelli soup.

Shorter menus are a result of the pandemic. Chefs don’t want to buy more food than they know they can sell, and kitchens can’t be crowded with workers. But even within those confines, Tien and team are turning out memorable meals. Dusted in rice flour, branzino gets roasted and paired with baby bok choy and bronzed Tokyo turnips, along with a chartreuse-colored sauce, a turmeric curry dappled with dill oil. The entree is clean and elegant. More important, people seem happy to be here, evinced one night when I looked up from my plate to find every other party photographing their food, as if it were blogger night.

Thacher & Rye, Bryan Voltaggio’s new restaurant, is designed with the pandemic in mind

Other than some new plants and a forthcoming mural, Moon Rabbit, which takes its name from Vietnamese folklore, doesn’t look much different from Kith/Kin. The dining room is contemporary and corporate, even a bit of a throwback when the not-so-background music has me thinking about sound checks for the first time in ages.

The more attractive experience is open glass doors and tables parked just outside, facing the Washington Channel and warmed with tall heaters and nice staff — sometimes too nice. I appreciate a server who can share a little story about the dishes, as happens here, but my patience wears thin when a waiter asks how I like everything, every course, as also occurs here. A discreet glance to ascertain all’s well is the better check-in stance.

Allow me another nit. Everyone seems to be drinking red wine by the glass, a phenomenon no doubt explained by the ridiculous prices on Moon Rabbit’s wine list, a meager 14 bottles long. (The least expensive wine by the glass is a syrah from South Africa for $12.) I’m inclined to go easier on restaurants during tough times — star ratings have been suspended since March — but a wine list whose average bottle price is ... $115? True, there are designer-label champagnes in the mix, but still. If you imbibe, focus on the cocktails. They aren’t inexpensive, either, but they are well-made and at least reflect the chef’s theme.

Moon Rabbit had yet to hire a pastry chef when I visited, which explains the single smart dessert, a flan flavored to suggest Vietnamese coffee and set off with chocolate pearls.

“This is a new beginning for me and my cooking,” Tien says. Initially, he had no interest in joining a hotel. But the owners are giving him wide berth to do his own food, and Moon Rabbit is like having “my own restaurant without the hassle of running a business” during a pandemic, says the chef with the Midas touch. Problems with the lights or a leak can be solved with a call to engineering. Plus, Tien says, “the view’s not bad.”

He’s talking about his perspective, from the dining room, but could just as well be channeling ours, from the plate.

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Moon Rabbit 801 Wharf St. SW. 202-878-8566. moonrabbitdc.com. Open: Indoor and weather-dependent outdoor dining 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. No takeout or delivery. Prices: Appetizers $14 to $24, main courses $24 to $67. Accessibility: Wide hotel and restaurant doors have buttons for opening; restrooms are ADA-compliant.

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