If you associate DC solely with the National Mall, the White House, U.S. Capitol and other famous government buildings and think of the city more or less as an administrative capital of the States, you will be wowed the moment you step onto the Wharf, a new waterfront neighborhood in the Southwest part of the city, with shiny new developments constantly being built. I certainly wasn’t aware of the existence of the Wharf until I moved to the DMV area with my wife Jun last year, and while we don’t go out in the city as much as we have become a boring suburban couple living in Maryland, the Wharf is one area I wouldn’t have minded living in and hanging out more. In the center of the neighborhood lies Moon Rabbit, a modern Vietnamese restaurant from Kevin Tien who made a name for himself in the DC culinary scene with his former Japanese restaurant Himitsu. When we walked into the restaurant on a recent visit in mid-October, we were overwhelmed by a large and loud wedding crowd imbibing at the bar area. Outside, there was a huge line for some type of concert that was supposed to happen later that night. Despite these distractions, all would have been forgiven with excellent food. Overall, Moon Rabbit had good (but not great) food with one stand-out dish.
If you are familiar with Vietnamese food lie a bowl of pho, spring rolls or banh mi sandwich, you wouldn’t immediately recognize the dishes at Moon Rabbit as originated from the country’s culinary tradition. Most of the dishes on the menu had the names of the Vietnamese dishes that inspired them. Take, for instance, a dish of bluefin tuna, beets and crushed peanuts whose display resembled that of tiet canh vit, a type of raw blood pudding (I don’t believe there was any raw blood here though). We both enjoyed the textural combination of the tuna and beets that made for a very solid appetizer. Our assessment of another dish, this time inspired by sui mai dumpling, was a bit more mixed. I thought this mix of squash, shrimp stuffing and grits made of fried unicorn fish offered interesting flavor while Jun was a bit put off by the texture of the grits. Bo luc lac is a popular sauteed beef dish of Vietnam, and the version at Moon Rabbit with wagyu tri-tip accompanied by black pepper jus, watercress and tomato harissa was solid, too. The best dish of the night belonged to a gigantic whole fried flounder. Curiously named canh chua (a type of sweet and sour soup) even though there was no bowl of soup (only a sweet and sour broth to add to the flounder), it was wonderfully fried, giving nice contrast with the soft inside, and Jun gladly deboned the entire fish. We were running of room in our stomach by the time we finished the flounder so unfortunately had to skip dessert.
Moon Rabbit is a fairly large restaurant, and getting a reservation via Resy shouldn’t be too difficult unless you are looking for last-minute reservations on the peak weekend hours. The upscale décor of the restaurant appropriately reflects the ethos of the Wharf that wants to show that DC is not just some old, stuffy city anymore. The restaurant has full bar with a surprisingly diverse and thoughtful wine list intended to work well with Vietnamese flavor (I certainly didn’t expect to see orange wines on the list). Moon Rabbit is a solid dining option for a night out at the Wharf if you are feeling adventurous and want to experience the vision of modern Vietnamese food. Other than the flounder, though, I think we need a few more visits to try other dishes before we can endorse Moon Rabbit as a destination-worthy restaurant.
KenScale: 7.75/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.75/10)
Address: 801 Wharf St. SW, Washington, DC 20024
Reservation via Resy