Kyirisan, however, is their newest and most personal, on a number of levels.
"I wanted one place that was all my own," Ma said. He and Hernandez are the sole owners of their first restaurant in the District -- no investors, no partners, as was the case in their other ventures. "I'm literally raising money to buy the food."
The name itself (pronounced kyr-i-sahn) is significant to their family, too. Because the couple has three young children, they combined the "k" from "kun," the name assigned to the children's generation by a Ma ancestor, with the phonetic spellings of the Chinese words for "one," "two" and "three," or "yi," "er" and "san."
The food is also a product of Ma's story. The menu will blend Chinese and French cuisine, the former a nod to his heritage and the latter to his training at the International Culinary Center (formerly the French Culinary Institute). Ma thinks the combination is an unexplored one, too.
The former electrical engineer enrolled in culinary school at age 30 when he decided he was more interested in owning restaurants. His restaurant-owning parents and uncle couldn't understand why: "They worked so hard so I wouldn't be in the restaurant business." But after seeing his parents left scrambling in the kitchen when their chef left to open a place across the street, Ma decided he should at least know a little about cooking in case he ever ended up in the same situation. "I didn't know how to cook," Ma recalled. On his first day at school, he couldn't even hold a knife correctly.
Oh, how things can change. Ma, 38, has unabashedly embraced cooking and his family's history, this time with a good luck charm from his uncle's former restaurant -- a set of gorgeous bird-adorned antique panels imported from China that will grace one of Kyirisan's corridors.
Still, Ma isn't letting his Chinese background hamstring his menu. Dishes will also feature inspiration from and creations by his staff (almost all of whom were "poached" from Water & Wall) and from Southeast Asia in general, including the Philippines, Burma and Korea.
Divided into categories of "in the ground," "on the ground" and "under the water," the menu will highlight dishes such as deep-fried tofu with black pepper sauce, Filipino hanger steak with calamansi sauce, duck breast with scallion pancakes and hoisin orange sauce, and mussels with Asian chorizo. Each category will have plates organized by size, served on pieces custom made by local design studio Cloud Terre. "They're meant to be eaten however you want to eat them," Ma said, though there will be somewhat of an emphasis on the more medium-sized dishes. To drink: A concise wine list curated by Ma's sommelier at Water & Wall, classic cocktails and Virginia and D.C. beers.
Among the food options, of course, will be Ma's famous creme fraiche chicken wings, which have been showcased as a signature item at all of Ma's restaurants. On the slightly more, how shall we put it, eclectic end: Fried duck livers served with a waffle cut in half and filled with duck-blood caramel, Ma's riff on chicken and waffles that is reminiscent of Dutch stroopwafels.
Still, Ma likes to think of his style as "simplified cuisine," which is more about layers of flavors than tons of components on the plate.
The design of the inevitably delayed restaurant, which will seat 62 inside and 12 outside, is relatively streamlined as well. Expect a soothing palette of white and blue, with plenty of wood along with gold accents. "The whole idea was this is our home," Ma said. "It's not, like, a hipster restaurant." In general, the goal was to "make this a restaurant that's just a restaurant," he said. "It's not an experience," and you can almost hear the air quotes in Ma's voice.
Ma's "open" kitchen -- his biggest so far -- is tucked away toward the back. It's open enough for diners to see it as they walk in but not so open that the rather shy chef feels like he's on display.
"You should just enjoy yourself," he said, "focus on the food, focus on the wine."