In the lead-up to opening his first restaurant as an owner, chef Colin McClimans is laughing at himself because it looks like his big idea is working, and it’s already putting him in a tough spot.
Nina May, a New American outfit that will attempt to honor a sometimes suspect “farm-to-table” ethos by sourcing the majority of its produce from growers within a 150-mile radius of its Logan Circle locale, opens tonight at 1337 11th Street NW, the building that recently went through iterations of the Bird and Frenchy’s Naturel. At a preview for friends and family this week, McClimans had a chance to test out a $39 “Family Meal” prix fixe in which he selects which seasonal shared plates to serve. The surprise hit was a vegetarian option, a plate of fresh, shelled marrow beans cooked in Parmesan rind broth and served with smoked portobello mushrooms, butternut squash, cardoons, a rutabaga puree, and garnishes of brown butter crumble, pickled mustard seeds, and scallions.
“The feedback we’ve gotten from it is people are obsessed,” McClimans says. “Those beans are about to get out of season. We’re only going to get to have them for a couple weeks.”
McClimans, a former culinary director at high-brow coffee shop Slipstream and chef de cuisine at vegan-centric fine-dining spot Equinox, says he’s already called up the marrow bean purveyor and offered to buy them out of their whole supply. He sees the bean dish as a shining example of why he wants to serve the prix fixe: to wow people with something they might normally skim over on the menu.
He says his roasted whole chicken — a simple, brined, lemon-thyme variety served with roasted potatoes, mustard greens, and caramelized pan jus over a crusty section of brioche he bakes himself — achieves the same end. Other early dishes include bison tartare sourced from a Virginia farm and a stuffed rainbow trout served with rainbow swiss chard. A party of four should be able to go through eight or nine dishes portioned out for everyone to have a few bites in a “potluck” style.
“It really kind of puts an energy at the table which I’m excited about,” McClimans says. “People are laughing and they’re drinking and they’re having a really good time.”
He and co-owner Danilo Simic, the general manager and bar director, are chasing another nebulous, elusive tag, that of the “neighborhood restaurant.” So in addition to McClimans’s “family meal,” the two-level space will serve an a la carte menu and a cafe menu featuring a burger at the downstairs bar. In December, Nina May will run a daytime cafe on the first floor that includes coffee from Swing’s in Alexandria and gives McClimans a chance to bake cinnamon buns, coffee cake, muffins, and English muffins for breakfast sandwiches. He’ll also experiment with po’ boy rolls, rye bread, and Texas toast.
Simic will organize the cocktail menu in categories like light, strong, spicy, and smoky. For colder months he’ll roll out Old Fashioneds, Irish coffee, and hot toddies. He says he loves making gin and tonics, and Nina May’s versions will follow the seasons with options like citrus-and-cucumber. Cocktails will start around $9.
The partners designed the 150-seat space themselves, using a simple white motif to keep from distracting diners from the colors on their plates. There’s a 25-seat patio with a retractable roof upstairs, and 50 outdoor seats downstairs.
Simic and McClimans met at Equinox, but became friendlier when they went in separate directions and reconnected as new fathers. Nina May is a combination of their daughters’ names. While McClimans was getting schooled on coffee at Slipstream, Simic was rising through the ranks at fellow Serb Ivan Iricanin’s Street Guys Hospitality, opening Ambar Clarendon and eventually rising to the rank of GM at the Buena Vida/Tacos, Tortas, Tequila complex in Silver Spring.
When the future partners would meet for coffee, they inevitably started talking shop, mulling over what worked and didn’t work in the restaurant business. Both rolled their eyes at places that claimed to be farm-to-table but were only sourcing 5 percent of their inventory from local producers. Although there will be exceptions — McClimans likes Norwegian salmon, and some dairy will come from Pennsylvania — both thought committing to the 150-mile rule would help them stand out.
“That’s the challenge,” Simic says, “but it’s also very exciting.”
Nina May (1337 11th Street NW) will open for dinner from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday and close at 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday