Photo credit – Samantha Lee
Early last November Carlie Steiner, owner and beverage director, and Kevin Tien, owner and executive chef opened Himitsu – a Japanese restaurant with a Latin American and Asian flair, in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, DC. The duo met at ThinkFoodGroup’s Oyamel on 7th Street where Steiner was bartending and Tien was cooking.
The name “Himitsu” came to them by accident. As curiosity-seekers dropped by during construction, they told them the restaurant’s name was a secret. This was entirely true. In Japanese, the word himitsu means secret. The two liked the name and felt it represented their ideas well.
Himitsu enjoys an open kitchen concept that lets diners interact with restaurant staff. With a total of capacity of 24 seats – eight at the bar and 16 in the dining room, it’s cozy and friendly and lightly decorated with potted plants hung from the ceiling.
Prior to opening Himitsu, Chef Tien had graduated from Louisiana State University with a business administration degree specializing in finance. He had cheffed at Tsunami Sushi; was Sushi Chef at Uchi in Houston, TX; Oyamel in DC; Momofuku CCDC; and the crazy-hot noew resto, Pineapple & Pearls. Steiner graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and was Chef of Spirits at Minibar by José Andrés. Their stated philosophy is to operate a kitchen with a smile and a heart full of love and see that translate into their food.
The menu changes daily combining freshness, acidity and herbs, leaning heavily towards Latin American and Asian flavor profiles. The first page features a drink menu with a selection of seven beers, five temperance mocktails, classic cocktails with a twist, and contemporary cocktails. The second page lists an expansive variety of nigiri, makimono, cold appetizers and hot appetizers.
I began with the “Baransu”, a cocktail of sake, smoked green tea, pineapple vinegar and a touch of shisho. I continued with two other cocktails – “Smoked + Iced”, made with lightly sweetened Japanese cherry wood and smoked matcha tea, and “Cinnamon Soda” made with lemon, cinnamon, sparkling water and rose water. My dinner companion remarked that the Cinnamon Soda was a unique and pleasant combination of ingredients.
The food menu peaked our curiosity due to combination of ingredients and we felt that we should try as many of the items as possible. Chef Tien’s personality and cultural upbringing influenced some of the dishes, especially the Hamachi Kama, which was prepared with lightly deep fried hamachi collar, topped with a variety of herbs, and tossed in a slightly spicy fish sauce vinaigrette and served with two glasses of Manzanilla “Pasada Pastrana” sherry. It was reminiscent of fried catfish dinner from Hanoi with its complement of Thai basil, mint leaves and fish sauce.
The kitchen proved quite versatile with sushi offerings like Supaishi Tuna and Hamachi Zen. The Supaishi Tuna consisted of bigeye tuna, jalapeno, sriracha, avocado, cucumber, and shichimi togarashi (Japanese spice mixture) wrapped in roasted seaweed and rice vinegar-infused Japanese sticky rice with sesame seeds.
The Hamachi Zen consisted of roasted seaweed topped rice vinegar-infused Japanese sticky rice topped with fresh Japanese yellowtail, micro mustard, crispy shallots, and avocado rolled and sliced. These rolls were served with a yuzukosho, a fancy term for yuzo chili paste. The sushi rice used in the rolls had the perfect texture and temperature and proved to be a satisfying and unique sushi experience.
From the five “Cold Plates” I sampled the Hamachi + Orenji, Akami + Gohan, and Kawaii Salad.
The Hamachi + Orenji consists of sushi-grade Japanese yellowtail and orange segments. The dish was served in Thai chili fish sauce vinaigrette and garnished with orange and yuzu tobiko. It was a nice balance of sweet and spicy.
The Akami + Gohan is a dish of cubed bigeye tuna tartare mixed with shoyu, ginger, scallion and quail egg, topped with sesame rice cracker. This was my favorite dish of the night.
The Kawaii Salad consists of baby lettuce greens, radish, yuzu-pickled golden raisins and almonds, evenly tossed in a miso-creole mustard vinaigrette. It reminded me of a salad I had in Tokyo two summers ago.
Among the six “Hot Plates”, I tried the Agedashi Tofu, Ton Ton + Mame, and Karaage.
The Agedashi Tofu has deep-fried salt and pepper battered tofu served in a traditional Japanese dashi stock with Chinese scallion ginger and garnished with bonito flakes that moved with the air current.
The Ton Ton + Mame is braised honey-hoisin Chinese pork belly with pork jus marinated ginger-garlic white beans that are garnished with both fried shallots and pickled shallots. This dish reminded me of my childhood eating roasted suckling pig with hoisin sauce as well as my uncle’s braised pig knuckles with rice.
The Karaage was a delightful combination of Korean gochujang-marinated tender chicken dipped in buttermilk and deep fried, and served with house made sweet pickles and kewpie mayo.
We ended our meal with a Buttermilk Panna Cotta, which was certainly not your typical panna cotta. This panna cotta was rich in flavor and served in a shallow bowl topped with fresh plum, ginger Szechuan honeycomb candy and matcha oil. Not only was the combination of flavors unusual, but the honeycomb candy was more chewy than expected.
Overall, I enjoyed the various aspects of the restaurant – atmosphere, service, food and drinks. I highly recommend the Himitsu Zen, Hamachi Kama, Akami + Gohan, Kawaii Salad, Ton Ton + Mame, and Karaage. I look forward to returning to Himitsu to explore my taste buds, try new dishes, and enjoy these dishes once more.
Insider’s Tip – The restaurant opens for dinner service at 5pm, Tuesday – Sunday. However, they do not accept reservations and seating is strictly walk-ins. If there isn’t a table for your party size, join the waitlist and they’ll notify you when there’s an opening. Three weeks after opening the place was packed and there was around a 45-minute wait. Since then, it’s gotten rave reviews. Prepare to go early and stand in line.
Himitsu is located at 828 Upshur St. NW, Washington, DC 20011. Ample street parking along Upshur St and its cross streets.