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When late D.C. restaurateur Mark Kuller named his Southeast Asian restaurant Doi Moi back in 2013, he chose a Vietnamese phrase that means “new change” or “renewal.” He was likely referring to the rapidly developing 14th Street NW corridor where the restaurant is located, plus changes in his life such as becoming a new father and transitioning from being a lawyer to a leader in the local restaurant industry.
When Kuller died in 2014 after battling pancreatic cancer, his family stepped up to keep Doi Moi, Estadio, and Proof thriving. (Proof closed at the beginning of the year.)
Mark’s brother, Jason Kuller, took the reins at Doi Moi. But now the lawyer and stand-up comic is calling in reinforcements to usher in another “renewal,” of sorts, at the restaurant. This week Jason announced that Star Restaurant Group (SRG) will come on as the operators of Doi Moi.
Jason will remain a partner in the joint venture, but SRG partners—Stu Damon, Desmond Reilly, and Kris Carr—will largely lead the way. SRG is also behind Chicken + Whiskey on the same street as Doi Moi, plus Walrus Oyster & Ale House at National Harbor and The Walrus in Columbia, Maryland.
“We saw this beautiful corner in an area that we’ve really come to not only love but understand from a business perspective,” Reilly says. “We thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t that be an amazing opportunity?’” The SRG partners and Jason engaged in a lengthy business courtship before inking a deal.
“There was passion and respect,” Jason says. “But they also came with a vision that I could really see not only paying homage to my brother’s legacy, but also really giving Doi the kind of buzz that it deserves. It’s such a beautiful space and people don’t even know it’s there.”
Jason says one of their chief struggles has been cultivating an active bar scene. Reilly explains that’s one of the things they hope to change when the restaurant closes for renovations in late spring or early summer. (SRG says they will help current employees find work while the restaurant is temporarily closed.)
From day one, Doi Moi has had a bright white aesthetic with only a few pops of color. “I’ve been thinking about what to do with the canvas,” Reilly says. “This is a great space, but it’s unfinished. There are so many things we can do here to raise this to a vibrant, rich atmosphere … Imagine a really vibrant, beautifully rich, and colorful Vietnamese street market.”
One component of the renovation is moving the bar to create an indoor/outdoor space utilizing the patio area on the corner of 14th and T streets NW. They may even enclose part of it for an atrium effect. Carr says the focal point of the bar will be a fruit stand complete with ripening stations.
“It’s true to the concept of being in Vietnam where there’s an abundance of amazing fruits, herbs, and vegetables and stuff they use in smoothies and fresh fruit drinks,” Carr says. They’ll freeze fruit when it’s at its optimal freshness and incorporate it into smoothies, juice extractions, and pressed citrus drinks. At night, bartenders will be able to incorporate alcohol.
SRG is also planning to narrow the focus. The bar located under Doi Moi will no longer go by a separate name. First it was award-winning cocktail bar Two Birds, One Stone. Then it was Destination Wedding. “We gotta make the downstairs an attractive but totally different vibe than upstairs,” Reilly says. He’s imagining something darker and sexier. The same food and drinks will be offered in both spaces.
While the restaurant will continue serving food during the day, it’ll also be under the name Doi Moi. It’s been billed separately as “Bird’s Eye” since Summer 2018.
Co-chefs Eric Arill and Brandon Nguyen, who recently traveled to Southeast Asia for research, will continue to lead the kitchen. They took over when Chef Johanna Hellrigl moved on to pursue other ventures earlier this year.
Jason and Reilly say don’t expect the menu to immediately change. They’re currently taking stock of where they should make tweaks and are putting better systems in place. They do plan to add late night happy hour and are determining how to strengthen their delivery options.
“It would be great to have Mark’s baby be this thriving Southeast Asian eatery that he always envisioned,” Jason says.
Doi Moi, 1800 14th St. NW; (202) 733-5131; doimoidc.com