All words by Elsie Yang
What do you get when classic French technique meets authentic Vietnamese flavors? The answer is somewhere in Kevin Tien’s mind, and has come to life in Moon Rabbit, the new Vietnamese fine dining destination on the Wharf.
Moon Rabbit, which opened at the end of October, had large shoes to fill. The space in the InterContinental Hotel in the Southwest Waterfront was previously filled by Chef Kwame Onwuachi of Kith/Kin fame, where the team dished up much-lauded Afro-Caribbean cuisine for several years. Tien, however, has more than risen to the challenge, and has taken the team (and his diners) further east, serving dishes that are, in Tien’s words, “contemporary Vietnamese.”
There’s the 21st century take on the classic milk bun, which in Tien’s preparation, is served with a delightful hoisin butter that offsets the sweetness of the pineapple. Grilled prawns are served whole with their heads on, and doused in garlic and thai basil butter, and muoi ot xanh sua dac, a traditional Vietnamese seafood dipping sauce (you’ll want to take an entire jar home with you). And then, there are moments when Tien’s American southern upbringing makes itself abundantly apparent — the Chim Cut Chien Bo, a traditional fried quail dish, is served with perhaps less traditional biscuits and a fermented chili honey.
The concept behind Moon Rabbit began with the onset of the pandemic, Tien tells Brightest Young Things. “As a first generation Asian American, I was always pushed to be more American than Asian. I didn’t fit in with what we know as “White America,” but at the same time I wasn’t “Asian” enough,” Tien said. As a result, the classically trained chef has always thought of his Asian heritage as an accent to his food, rather than its focus. But no longer at Moon Rabbit. “I’ve always had Southern and Southeast Asian influence in my cooking, but Moon Rabbit is finally where I can put those flavors front and center and be proud of it,” Tien says.
Those flavors truly come to light in dishes like the lemongrass pork blade steak, served with lettuce wraps, coconut rice, and an herb bouquet. The same could be said for the Cha Ca La Vong, an iconic Vietnamese dish that Tien makes with branzino, turmeric curry, Tokyo turnips, and baby bok choy.
“The food here is Vietnamese-inspired 100%,” Tien says. “When you dine with us, there is a story or dish that or menu pulls and reflects from. It’s the flavors that I grew up eating, but presented in a different way or through a different product/ingredient.”
Along with chefs like Tim Ma, Erik Bruner-Yang, Tom Cunanan, Seng Luangrath, and Bobby Pradachith, Tien is redefining the role that Asian flavors and Asian cuisine plays in the American palette. “Chefs across DC are defining their family recipes and their country’s cuisine,” Tien says. “It’s all about educating others about the history and culture of the food we are cooking, and having others see the value of what we are literally bringing to the table.” And while the notion of Asian fine dining is not the most ubiquitous concept, Tien is looking to challenge that notion even further. “Everyone should be able to charge what a dish is worth based on how much it cost to get that plate of food to the customer,” Tien says. “There shouldn’t be a price difference because of where the food comes from.” And certainly, the food at Moon Rabbit is well worth its price tag.
Washington, DC 20024
Tel: +1 (202) 878-8566
Open Tues to Sun 5pm to 9pm
Featured image via Moon Rabbit