Emilie’s: SAVE THE BRANZINO!

It begins innocently enough. It’s my first visit to eat at Emilie’s, the new restaurant from Chef Kevin Tien on Capitol Hill. Visions of fried chicken are dancing in my head. I’ve heard raves about the deep-fried bird which is accompanied by ranch dressing and a hot sauce made from fermented chilis. I’m a big fan of Kevin Tien’s fried chicken at Hot Lola’s and the now-closed Himitsu. So yes, fried chicken will be on the table.

Our party of six also agrees to order branzino. Besides the fried chicken and a 25 oz. pork blade steak, it’s the only other large format dish on the menu.

As the meal progresses, we marvel at the focaccia and whole wheat sourdough and an accompanying array of spreads including Sichuan honey butter and chicken liver pate. We enthuse over scallop crudo with crispy candied okra and curry leaves, and devour sweet potato with pumpkin seed mole, cotija cheese, and lime. We ravage the roving carts, a signature of the buzzy new restaurant, as we signal our desire for fermented mustard greens, beets, and marinated eggplant. Our anticipation grows as we await the branzino.

Emilie's Pickles and Ferments
Emilie’s Pickles and Ferments

And finally comes the fish. It is butterflied, brined, coated in toasted rice powder, seared, and finished in the oven. The presentation is stark. But a topping of roasted hen of the woods mushrooms coated in butter and Chongqing spice adds visual interest. White rice and a cup of agadashi broth accompany the fish, along with spicy ginger scallion sauce and a bowl of greens. The reaction at the table is like a stadium wave at a sporting event, as we discover the finesse in preparation and the depth of flavor.

Emilie's Whole Branzino
Emilie’s Whole Branzino

 I don’t recall who says it first, but a declaration is made.  “I like this better than the fried chicken.”  There are nods around the table.  “This is my favorite dish of the night,” someone else says. 

Emilie's Ranch Fried Chicken
Emilie’s Ranch Fried Chicken

Chef Tien stops by and we regale him with praise, mentioning the dishes that stand out most.  I can’t help but grin in mentioning the branzino. The chef is taken by surprise. He looks at us with a solemn expression. “No one orders the fish. I’m this close to taking it off the menu,” he says, gesturing to indicate that the branzino is in grave danger of being 86’d.

“What about the pescatarians?” I nearly shriek, pointing to my husband. The chef mutters something that indicates he will give it some thought, leaving us to recoil in disbelief. Superb desserts created by Emilie’s pastry chef Willa Pelin placate us. (Holy delicata squash cake, salted rye chocolate chip cookies, and a sundae that includes Sichuan chocolate ice cream and chili crunch!)

Emilie's Gjetost Molten Cake
Emilie’s Gjetost Molten Cake

Diners overlooking the fish may be due to its being largely ignored by the media. Tom Sietsema doesn’t mention it in his Washington Post review. Ann Limpert of Washingtonian doesn’t give it a shout-out in her online chat when asked what to order at Emilie’s. Even the restaurant’s own Instagram feed seems to ignore it.

So I find myself with no option but to launch a campaign to save the branzino from elimination at Emilie’s. My initial effort is on Instagram, where I post a photo and heap praise on the dish. This may not be enough, so I proceed to solicit testimonials.

One of my dining companions at Emilies, freelance food writer Lani Furbank, has this to say: “It wasn’t something I would have ordered myself, but it blew us away! With the potent agedashi, the flavorful sauces, and the perfectly cooked branzino, that dish is one I want to eat again and again. Don’t take it away, Chef!”

Aparna Krishnamoorthy, also a freelance food writer, chimes in. “Our entire meal at Emilie’s was phenomenal, but the whole branzino was easily the unexpected hit for me. The fish was cooked perfectly, but the accompanying side dishes really took it to the next level. The agedashi broth, the hot oil, ginger scallion sauce – all of it was just fantastic! Chef Tien is known to be a master of fried chicken, but he’s a master of whole fish too, it seems!”

And finally Mikey Fabian, one of the chefs on the talented team at Emilie’s, offers his opinion. “It’s easily the best dish on the menu. I love the whole experience of eating it and it’s an impressive amount of food. If it gets taken off, I’d be a sad chef.”

On behalf of the pescatarians, diners who seek a lighter alternative to fried chicken or pork, fish devotees, food writers, and your own staff, I hereby submit this plea to Chef Kevin Tien of Emilie’s. Please … save the branzino!

Emilie‘s, 1101 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Washington, DC

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