The little restaurant that could: DC’s small Himitsu collects big praise

WASHINGTON — A tiny neighborhood restaurant in Northwest D.C. is making a big splash.

Himitsu has just a dozen employees and two dozen seats, but the accolades keep coming in. In August 2017, the Japanese-inspired restaurant landed a coveted spot on Bon Appétit’s list of the 50 best new restaurants in America. Two months later, The Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema ranked Himitsu No. 3 in his 2017 Fall Dining Guide. (The top two restaurants, Pineapple and Pearls and Inn at Little Washington, both have two Michelin stars.)

And now, Himitsu executive chef and co-owner Kevin Tien is a finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year at the James Beard Awards. Last year, he was a semifinalist in the same category.

Did I mention he is only 30?

A few years ago, Tien never imagined he would be lauded by national critics and packing his bags for Chicago to attend the awards ceremony, dubbed “the Oscars of food.” In fact, he was working a 9-to-5, earning a salary and benefits — “The job everybody dreams of having after college,” Tien said. But he wasn’t completely satisfied.

Before his “desk job,” Tien worked in restaurants, including Jose Andres’ Oyamel, and he wanted back in — only this time, he wanted to do it himself.

“So I gave it all up to go back into the kitchen and open up a little neighborhood restaurant, and here we are, a year and a half later,” Tien said.

Himitsu is different from other “successful” D.C. restaurants in a number of ways. Its total square footage is a fraction of what downtown and new-development dining rooms have. Plus, Tien and his business partner, Carlie Steiner, do everything in-house. He cooks and does the payroll, she manages the beverage program and the social media. Both wash dishes.

There’s no previous “Top Chef” fame (although Tien did just compete on “Iron Chef”), no publicist and no phone. And in an industry burdened with high rates of employee turnover, the majority of people who work at Himitsu have been there since the beginning.

“We will always just want to be a neighborhood dining destination,” said Tien, adding that having regular customers is the only recognition he needs.

“Sometimes we’ll see them two, three times a week, which is amazing. For people to want to spend their disposable income at our restaurant that many times in a week or month or year, it means a lot to us. Disposable income is hard to come by, so if you want to spend it at our restaurant, there’s no bigger praise than that.”

The menu at Himitsu is more or less a fusion of foods and flavors, based on Tien’s palate and experience working in a variety of kitchens, spanning Latin American and Korean cuisines.

“Every chef hates the word ‘fusion,’ but I think at the end of the day it’s just Kevin on a
plate,” Tien said.

Dishes such as the popular hamachi crudo and karaage fried chicken populate the small menu; the overall vibe is “dinner party where your friends come over.”

Tien defines success as “getting by and being really happy with what you’re doing,” but welcomes the recent recognition and sees it as an opportunity to advance an important agenda.

“The chefs that are nominated (for a James Beard Award) are really leading our industry, not just in food, but the restaurant culture they create, how they treat their employees, everything. So to even be nominated, whether you’re a semifinalist or finalist, is a huge honor,” Tien said.

“It just means we’re doing something right, and it gives us a platform to have a larger voice for how we can change and shape the restaurant culture.”

Himitsu is located at 828 Upshur St. NW. The restaurant seats walk-ins only, starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and seating is based on a first-come, first-serve basis. Can’t make it out anytime soon? Try your hand at making chef Tien’s Hawaiian amberjack crudo, courtesy of S. Pellegrino®, presenter of this year’s James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award.

Recipe: Hawaiian amberjack crudo

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