As rising stars in the restaurant industry, Kevin Tien and Carlie Steiner created a supernova in late 2016. Their debut restaurant in Petworth garnered an impressive mass of accolades during just three years in business, and then suddenly, Himitsu was gone.
The ending wasn’t as dramatic as a star exploding. It was abrupt yet amicable – the best choice for all parties involved as each owner grew their own empire. Many are mourning the loss of the quirky, welcoming restaurant, but the death of Himitsu marks the birth of two even more interesting concepts.
Tien announced his new restaurant last year. Emilie’s has a much larger footprint than Himitsu, and expectations are high.
“It’s pretty ambitious, what we want to do,” he says. “It was only right to me to focus my attention all on Emilie’s or else I don’t think we would be able to open a really great restaurant.”
Though Himitsu was Tien’s first restaurant, in partnership with Steiner, it wasn’t the one he first dreamed of opening.
“When I originally wrote up the plan for a restaurant many, many years ago, Emilie’s was actually that original business concept, with a cart-style service.”
Now, he’s poised to open Emilie’s on Capitol Hill in early to mid-October. His vision for the concept is to cultivate a dining experience focused on sharing.
“Growing up, sharing meant going out to eat dim sum with my family,” he says.
Emilie’s will feature carts roving around the dining room, as well as large-format, family-style entrées with shareable sides. The menu will incorporate flavors and dishes from around the country and the world, while reflecting from the kitchen team’s backgrounds. He’s calling it new American, but not in the sense you might expect.
“Before, I think American was very steak and potatoes and roast chicken or casseroles, but I think American looks very different now,” he continues. “There’s Italian food, there’s Ethiopian food, there’s Asian cuisine. That’s what American food really is now.”
As a nod to Tien’s Louisiana upbringing, there will be a fried chicken dinner with caviar deviled eggs. His Vietnamese heritage will be represented by family-style woven noodles served with various fish sauces and grilled items. Himitsu fans won’t find Tien’s famous hamachi crudo – but he promises there will be a crudo of some sort – honoring the 12 years he spent cooking Japanese cuisine.
His kitchen management team’s influence can be seen in various aspects of the menu as well, like Davy Bourne’s house-made breads and Autumn Cline and Mikey Fabian’s seafood prowess. When Emilie’s opens, Tien wants to capture the feeling that made Himitsu special.
“A lot of the magic from Himitsu came from everyone working together as a team,” he says. “My biggest hope is that with the staff that we have here, with everyone working together on the menu and the service, we’re able to recreate some of that same magic.”
Now the sole owner of a popular restaurant on Upshur Street, Steiner has also turned her attention to building a team.
“We are not a chef-driven restaurant,” she says. “We are a team-driven restaurant.”
She tapped chef Amanda Moll and beverage director Lauren Paylor to reopen the restaurant as a new concept: Pom Pom. In just 36 hours, they redesigned the space, adding a forest green accent wall and upholstery as well as an explosion of brightly colored pom poms.
“I hope that we can continue to make that meticulous, beautiful food,” Steiner says. “What we’ve added is a lot more whimsy.”
She says Pom Pom feels like the living room of her home – a joyful, playful space for everyone. Just as Steiner wants her guests to feel at home, she wants her staff to feel safe.
“Most of our staff actually identifies in some way as queer,” she adds. “It’s naturally become a very welcoming space for queer people.”
In the coming months, she plans to offer benefits for staff.
“Safety is probably number one and that, for me, is about protecting my employees. My employees then come back and do an incredible job protecting the guests.”
Part of that is staying true to the team mentality. Instead of championing one individual, Steiner appreciates the value in all her staff.
“What about the service members? What about the cooks? What about the dishwashers? Those are the people making this place run.”
Moll takes that literally by calling everyone chef – a habit she formed long before joining Pom Pom.
“It’s a respect thing,” she explains. “We’re all on the same level. We all are just as important in this restaurant.”
The menus at Pom Pom are similarly collaborative. Steiner, who previously oversaw the beverage program at Himitsu, now has a 50 percent influence over both the food and drink menus along with Moll and Paylor. They’ve designed the offerings so you can enjoy a refined meal to celebrate a milestone, or a burger and a beer after work. Steiner describes the food as international cuisine, or “cuisine nonconforming.”
“I will not put one cuisine on it, because a) I don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves and b) I’m not claiming to cook any classic dish at all whatsoever,” she says. “We are not claiming to do anything except put out food that we like to eat.”
There are Southeast Asian dishes, which reflect Moll’s time as a sous chef at Doi Moi, as well as Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, which is what Steiner likes to cook. Highlights include Moll’s Balinese roast duck, Steiner’s take on hamachi crudo with house-made labneh, za’atar and pomegranate seeds, and their collaborative tahdig – a crispy Peruvian green rice. This is Moll’s first executive chef role, and she has embraced the opportunity to set the tone for kitchen culture.
“I’m excited that I’m able to be in a position where I can help build up other people now, [and] just be able to have a safe environment for people to learn, feel supported, grow and test out different ideas,” Moll says.
With the new concept well underway, Steiner hopes neighbors and visitors will give Pom Pom a chance.
“I’ve always been here,” she says. “The team is amazing and I’m hoping that people are excited to get onboard this f–king happy train, because we’re just here to throw a damn good party every night and we just want you to be a part of it.”