The dish that makes me giddiest this minute is a bowl of littleneck clams scattered with housemade chorizo and rye bread crumbs. You will find the prize, dressed with rings of caramelized squash, at Nina May, an ambitious reunion of chef Colin McClimans and general manager Danilo Simic in Logan Circle. The two met when they both worked at Equinox downtown, stayed in touch when they went in different directions, and bonded anew when they both had children and decided to use their daughters’ names for a place of their own. (Simic’s daughter is Nina; McClimans’s is May.)
Your waiter explains the drill: “We offer elevated versions of what the chef grew up on,” with most of the food sourced from the area. Hence those irresistible clams, clams being what McClimans, a D.C. native, calls a special-occasion dish within his family. The chef is trying to buy as much as he can from within a 150-mile radius. Lettuces and radishes come from as close as Little Wild Things and Up Top Acres, urban farms in the District. Here and there, practicality intervenes. You can get lemon or lime with your water, in other words.
The two-story Nina May follows the Bird and Frenchy’s Naturel in its space. The clean lines and soothing accents — white walls, green plants — keep the focus squarely on the food. Diners will be encouraged to try the $39-per-person “family meal” curated by McClimans: multiple plates meant to be shared and typically including a whole lemony chicken. “We send out food until you tell us not to,” the chef says.
Customers can also order a la carte, my typical behavior. Almost every dish I’ve tried has some lovely twist. An autumnal salad worthy of Martha Stewart is perked up with crisp parsnip chips, kohlrabi and bites of wine-poached apple spiced with star anise and pink peppercorns. Cavatelli colored with carrots comes dappled with toasted walnuts and caramelized onions. As appealing as the chicken is, the fennel-rubbed pork is my centerpiece of choice, vivid with a frame of chermoula and splayed over whipped potatoes so buttery that they are nearly liquid. McClimans channels Dr. Seuss with “green eggs and ham”: hand-rolled pici pasta tinted with kale juice and tossed with crisp pancetta and rich Parmesan. Close your eye, and carbonara comes to mind.
To mix it up for regulars, the kitchen changes a dish a day.
Let me help you winnow your selections. Tater tots, one of a handful of side dishes, call to the Midwesterner in me. Honestly, though, the freezer-case variety trumps this wimpy restaurant version. And leaden beignets plopped on sweet potato puree made me wish I hadn’t saved room for dessert. More pasta and pork would have been preferable.
Simic, who helped open the Balkan-themed Ambar in Clarendon, ensures drinks as enticing as dishes. From Oaxaca With Love is a spicy Valentine that marries jalapeño-shocked mezcal with lime, amaro and nutty orgeat. “Comfort drinks” — Irish coffee, mulled wine — keep winter at bay, at least until you head out. And the average price, $11, feels right.
The owners want us to drop by throughout the day. Weekend brunch is scheduled to begin Nov. 23, and a self-service cafe on the ground floor means breakfast sandwiches, bar burgers and chicken pot pie starting Dec. 16. (McClimans brings strong credentials to the a.m. routine. Before launching Nina May, he served as culinary director at Slipstream.) Designed to be more casual than upstairs, the cafe and its offerings peel back a curtain on the chef. Off work and late at night, he says, “I’m a big Marie Callender’s guy.”
Rest assured, his pot pie will be whipped up from scratch, down to the bechamel for the filling.
1337 11th St. NW. 202-518-3609. ninamaydc.com. Chef’s choice, $39 per person. A la carte dishes, $10 to $32.
More from Food: