Nina May: Happy as a Clam

“Are you content?” The server at the new Nina May in Shaw glances at our party of four with anticipation and a smile. We have chosen the “Chef’s Choice” concept, and the question of contentment is key.  For $39 you permit the chef to determine what he’ll cook for you, after the server ascertains food preferences or restrictions. Dishes are delivered to the table, and at some point the server poses the fundamental question. Diners signify whether they’ve had enough to eat or if they desire more food. I’m wild about this idea.   

The moment of truth will likely have you assessing the body language of your dining companions and your server to ascertain whether it really is okay to ask for more food.  It is. There is a caveat. The chef is in control.  So even if you decide the Moon Valley Sweet Potato Gratin listed on the menu is what your heart desires, there are no guarantees that you’ll get it.

This mash-up between a tasting menu and all-you-can-eat is an idea conceived by Nina May owners Colin McClimans (Equinox, Slipstream), who serves as executive chef and Danilo Simic (Ambar and Buena Vida) who is general manager and beverage director. Their restaurant doesn’t rely on this idea alone, however.  For diners who want more control over their meal, Nina May offers an a la carte menu.  And during the day, the restaurant operates as a casual café.

Nina May is also distinguished by a firm commitment to sourcing local ingredients. McClimans’ general rule of thumb is that ingredients must come from within 150 miles of the city. While many chefs pledge to prioritize local and seasonal, McClimans rarely strays off course.  This means that the current menu features a healthy dose of potatoes, squash, onions, mushrooms, brussels sprouts and carrots.  Fish is sourced from the mid-Atlantic, quail from Maryland, and chickens hail from Pennsylvania.  

These local treasures are woven into a menu that is segmented into grains, vegetables, fish, meat and sides. And while theoretically Chef’s Choice is off menu, most of what’s delivered to the table does appear in print. It’s nice to keep a copy handy, as dishes are often served in pairs and identified rather swiftly.   

The food at Nina May leans to the quirky with an occasional turn to comfort food. Here’s where a sense of adventure comes into play.  Would I order bison tartare with cured egg yolk or stewed marrow fat beans with oyster root?  Neither tempt me on paper, but both are earthy, rich, and satisfying. 

Nina May Stewed Marrow Fat Beans
Nina May Stewed Marrow Fat Beans
Photo by Deb Lindsey

Pastas are carefully crafted to show-off the seasons bounty.  Heirloom carrots are paired with brown butter cavatelli, crispy brussels sprouts, caramelized onions, and toasted walnuts. The cleverly named Green Eggs and Ham is a tossing together of kale pici pasta with house-made pancetta and parmesan Reggiano. They are equally gratifying.

Beauty and light comes to the table in the form of vegetables like roasted butternut squash with maple vinaigrette, petite sprouts and toasted pumpkin seeds or roasted baby beets with grilled radicchio and poached apples.

Nina May roasted baby beets with grilled radicchio
Nina May Roasted baby beets with grilled radicchio

Two of the simpler dishes bring me the most joy. I am finicky when it comes to chicken. If the bird is the slightest bit overdone, I’m disenchanted. At Nina May chicken from a Pennsylvania farm is skillfully roasted with lemon and thyme. The succulent chicken nests on a bed of caramelized chicken jus, flanked by Moon Valley roasted potatoes and slices of brioche. Winner, winner… you know the rest.

Crisp onion rings soar when dipped into the accompanying smoky carrot mustard. Diners at Nina May should certainly find fulfillment in this seductive side.

Nina May Mid-Atlantic Fluke, Lemon & Thyme Roasted Chicken, Onion Rings
Nina May Mid-Atlantic Fluke, Lemon & Thyme Roasted Chicken, Onion Rings
Photo by Deb Lindsey

Poached Carola potatoes with house smoked salmon is the dish we gain when THE question related to our satisfaction is responded to with “not quite.” Tossed with pickled red onions, dill salsa verde, and creme fraiche, it’s a dish that piques my interest for a return for brunch.

Poached Carola Potatoes with House Smoked Salmon
Nina May Poached Carola Potatoes with House Smoked Salmon
Photo by Deb Lindsey

Desserts are not included in Chef’s Choice. On my first visit to Nina May, we find them a weak link- conceptually interesting but too many elements weighing them down. This holds true the second time around. Sweet potato pie is a beauty on the plate, but is a textural miss. Consider an alternate ending such as a cocktail. “It’s My Jam” with grappa, apricot preserve, basil and lemon could end the evening on a sweeter note.

In his Washington Post coverage, Tom Sietsema declares that the bowl of littleneck clams with chorizo, squash, and rye bread crumbs makes him giddy. It’s one of many dishes here that gives me the answer to Nina May’s quintessential question “Are You Content?” My response comes easily. Happy as a clam.

Nina May, 1337 11th Street NW, Washington, DC

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