The merry-go-round restaurant next to Alta Strada in Mount Vernon Triangle has come to a stop. You heard it from Michael Schlow, the empire builder who owns both spaces: “Full truth,” he says. “I’m done with pop-ups” in the 32-seat dining room that has seen three temporary concepts come and go in a two-year span.
Schlow hopes Nama, which made its debut earlier this month, enjoys a long run in what had once hosted Adachi, Calle Cinco and Conosci. To ensure more permanence, he tapped veteran Washington chef Handry Tjan, 34, to orchestrate a Japanese-inspired menu and gave the venue its own entrance. Customers at the pop-ups had to walk through Alta Strada to reach their tables.
Sushi devotees might know Tjan’s work from his tenure at Sushiko in Chevy Chase, and well before that, Perry’s in Adams Morgan, among other establishments. Sea-fresh uni and well-marbled chu toro, or fatty tuna, are among the prime reasons to order nigiri, while the highlight of the maki rolls is shrimp tempura bundled with creamy avocado. Schlow wanted vegetarians to feel as welcomed as fish fanciers, which explains a separate category for the former. Grated and minced beets mixed with mint, Thai basil and Japanese pepper, swaddled in nori, mingles earth and fire, a taste sensation trailed by the crackle of a fried quinoa garnish.
Some of the small plates leave big impressions. Gyoza stuffed with ground pork, garlic and ginger are as good for the dumplings as the hot broth, redolent of soy sauce and truffles, in which they’re presented. Tempura shrimp in a curtain of mayonnaise flavored with chile sauce are easy to dispatch, too. Of course there’s tuna poke. Nama’s bowl gathers bright cubes of tuna, shimmering flying fish roe and a creamy edamame puree, the combo dusted with crisp tempura crumbs. On the other hand, sliced Japanese cucumber topped with chili threads, a ringer for saffron, is more fun to see than to eat. The appetizer feels austere compared with other cucumber salads around town.
Schlow realizes not everyone is game for raw fish or small plates. The neighborhood’s best slider may be the patty shaped from wagyu beef, tucked in a glossy (toasted and buttered) bun baked by Alex Levin, Schlow Restaurant Group’s pastry chef. The menu promises “umami flavors” with the sandwich and Tjan delivers. After it’s seared, the meat gets a spread of mayonnaise flavored with truffle oil and a shake of Parmesan. Housekeeping note: A bib should come with the slider, which spurts hot juice with every fine bite.
Cheesecake in a Japanese restaurant? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried Levin’s velvety, matcha-veined version at Nama. (The oh-so smooth texture comes from baking the dessert low and slow in a convection oven.) The bonbons that show up with the check change from week to week, although caramel-filled chocolates, shot through with Japanese whiskey, merit permanent residency. “The hard part is making sure the staff don’t eat them,” jokes Levin.
The interior retains the allure of its predecessors, with walls that appear to be covered in gold leaf, assorted small chandeliers and comfortable blue banquettes. But the mood is decidedly more lively, with louder music and a more casual vibe than ever. Little additions, like a waving kitty behind the bar, help define the new idea, too.
By year’s end, Tjan hopes to add omakase, a “chef’s choice” tasting menu. For the moment, he says he’s concentrating on making Nama an approachable experience for the neighborhood. So far, so fun.
465 K St. NW. 202-414-7066. namadc.com. Small plates, $5 to $16.