It’s opening night for Nama Ko, Boston-based celebrity chef Michael Schlow’s Japanese-style replacement to his Latin stalwart Tico.
Schlow’s anticipated new venture trades tacos and tequilas for hot and cold small plates, a dizzying selection of nigiri and sashimi, house and specialty rolls, and lots of Japanese sakes and whiskeys (1926 14th Street NW). Dinner runs 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 9 p.m. on Sundays (closed Mondays and Tuesdays).
“We are paying homage to Japan but breaking the rules a bit,” James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Schlow tells Eater.
Nama Ko builds upon the success of Nama, Schlow’s four-year-old sushi staple next to Italian sibling Alta Strada in Mt. Vernon Triangle. Schlow tapped Derek Watson, Stephen Starr’s star chef at Morimoto, to lead the Nama Ko kitchen in D.C. Watson was most recently at the helm of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s 20-year-old flagship and Momotoro in Chicago before that.
“It was a no-brainer with his pedigree background. He’s a great cook and person and it feels like he’s been part of our team forever,” says Schlow.
Creative starters under Watson’s watch include homemade miso soup with matzo balls or duck meatballs bobbing inside; charred shishito peppers with chili, garlic, and mapo tofu; and chilled shrimp with somen noodles, aji amarillo-kosho paste, and green papaya.
A “no rules” small plates section includes a potato “croquette” with a seared cube of Japanese A5 wagyu beef. The “ridiculously delicious” appetizer riffs on steak and potatoes, says Schlow. Hot plates include lobster pasta with dashi and yuzu beurre monte and king crab risotto with uni, miso, scallion, and togarashi butter.
Luxe wagyu shows up in lots of places at Nama Ko, in dumplings, rolls, tartare, and nigiri. An Australian wagyu New York strip flanked with asparagus, yuzu, and bearnaise is the priciest menu item ($85), with the option to add butter-poached lobster for $20 more. The same “a bit bigger” section includes a seared Atlantic red snapper dressed with soy dashi and dry-aged duck breast joined by kimchi.
Nama Ko’s nigiri and sashimi section includes a whopping 32 surf or turf options to choose from, including fatty tuna, mackerel, sea urchin, Kumamoto oysters, Japanese octopus, and duck or monkfish liver. Eight specialty rolls, listed under a “sushi chefs just wanna have fun” section, includes the Candy Cane (shrimp tempura, avocado, tuna, yellowtail, apple, jalapeno, tobiko).
Nama Ko’s 14th Street NW space already enjoys a raw fish following. In 2020, Tico carved out room for a sushi counter called Nama 14th — an extension of the original that sends out rolls, nigiri, and sashimi. Mt. Vernon Triangle’s Nama will continue operating as usual.
Tico served its last taco in late July and immediately went under the knife, reemerging with a newly added 12-seat sushi bar, reconfigured 80-seat dining room, and bar with room for 15. A seven-seat omakase experience is coming soon.
Tico debuted under the now-nightlife nexus of 14th and U Street NW in 2014, back when Mexican and Latin cuisine options weren’t aplenty. Now there’s Mexicue, months-old Salazar (formerly El Centro D.F.), and the new Mi Vida across the street. The current “crowded playing field” sparked the idea to focus on another cuisine entirely, says Schlow.
Whereas Tico was known for its tequila and mezcal lists, Nama Ko is big on sakes and Japanese whiskeys.
“D.C. has exploded with delicious and diverse sakes available,” says Schlow, crediting the spike in options to flashy Japanese newcomers like Michelin-rated Nakazawa and Midtown Center’s Shōtō.
Boozy and zero-proof cocktail categories joins sparkling, white, rose, and red wines by the glass and bottle at a newly polished, slick black bar. Look for ticketed sake events and tastings down the pike.
The largely cosmetic makeover from Studio //3877 wiped an existing space full of graffiti murals in lieu of rich dark blue paint and sheer golden curtains. The sound absorption ceiling stayed put.
“A restaurant is not just what you eat and see but what you touch, hear, and smell. It’s a five-sense experience,” says Schlow.
The existing kitchen layout, which powered up to 450 dinners on a busy Saturday night at Tico, translates well for Nama Ko’s parade of small plates.
Alex Levin, Schlow Restaurant Group’s director of strategic business initiatives and pastry programs, whips up a rotating selection of soft serve for dessert. Opening flavors include honey miso black truffle ice cream with chocolate toffee and chocolate sauce and coconut mango yuzu sorbet with candied walnuts and matcha shortbread crumble.
Schlow spent lots of time in D.C. during the depths of the pandemic to offer firsthand help where needed.
“Alex and I were doing everything — making pizzas [at Alta Strada] and cleaning bathrooms to keep businesses solvent,” he says. “We’re still standing.”