Orange crush roll at Nama Ko in Washington D.C.
Nama Ko's orange crush roll Credit: Nevin Martell

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Sometimes you want tradition-bound sushi served in hushed environs where everything must be done as it has always been done. Other times, not so much. For a fun departure from the classic experience, there’s Nama Ko, the latest offering from serial restaurateur Michael Schlow, who owns two locations of Italian trattoria Alta Strada locally and a string of other restaurants on the east coast.

Nama Ko, the brash big brother to the smaller, more reserved Nama in Mount Vernon Triangle, takes over the space on 14th Street NW that was previously home to Schlow’s Mexican-ish concept, Tico, which closed at the end of July. The changeover is long in the making; the Nama 14 sushi counter had operated inside Tico since late 2020.

The restaurant got a refresh and now sports dark blue paint, golden accents, and sakura-minded floral elements. Dusky and clubby, it feels more Miami than D.C. The dining room offers seating for 80, the sushi bar has a dozen spots, and there’s room for 15 more at the regular bar. Executive chef Derek Watson, the former executive chef of Stephen Starr’s Morimoto in Philadelphia and chef de cuisine at Chicago’s Momotaro, oversees the open kitchen.

The epic menu is divided into offerings from the kitchen and the sushi counter. In the latter category are small bites dubbed Nama-Mae (Our Style), medium-size plates boasting “no rules,” and larger, shareable entrees. In the first category, find Wagyu-packed dumplings with truffled soy sauce and house-made miso soup that can be leveled up with the addition of duck meatballs or Japanese matzo balls seasoned with togarashi, wasabi, and ginger.

Nama Ko’s golden beet tartare Credit: Nevin Martell

Watson has a lot of fun with the middle of the menu. Embrace autumn with chawanmushi, savory Japanese custard, bedecked with a troop of roasted shiitake and trumpet mushrooms (yes, troop is the collective noun for a group of mushrooms) and smoked trout roe. Earthy, savory, and smoky, it tastes like a fall forage cooked over a campfire. Another moment celebrating the season: roasted golden beet “tartare” tossed in vinaigrette made with hibiscus and sudachi (a lime-like Japanese citrus), then mounded on a swipe of silky sudachi crema.

In an indulgent mood? Dip into the king crab risotto laced with uni. Or try pork chops marinated for 48 hours in shio koji, adding roasted nut and toasted rice tones to the tender meat. Atop the share-size cut, a scattering of jeweled trout roe burst joyfully on your palate like natural Pop Rocks. Another technique-driven dish is duck, dry aged in house for up to a week. The breast stars, while the bones are roasted to make the koji duck jus on the plate. It comes with house-made kimchi (the base is four years old) made with wild ramps Watson foraged outside of Philadelphia.

Nigiri Credit: Nevin Martell

On the sushi side of the equation, there’s traditional sashimi and nigiri, unconventional maki rolls billed as “Sushi Chefs Just Wanna Have Fun…,” and a series of more traditional rolls. If you’re not opposed to the chefs having a little fun, try the Orange Crush—salmon, aji amarillo, and salmon roe, with the outer layer rolled in Fanta-hued rice pearls for crunch—or the Candy Cane—tempura-battered shrimp, avocado, tuna, apple, and jalapeño. And then there’s the F*U*, a roll of sheer ridiculousness, clocking in at an eye-watering $45. It has all the things—wagyu, toro, uni, and caviar—but it’s nothing more than a thirst trap. Skip it, unless you’re the type of person who always likes to prove they’re a big shot by buying stupid expensive stuff, in which case you deserve a F*U*.

Fish is sourced from Tokyo’s Toyosu Market, as well as local vendors, while Watson gets some produce from Norwich Meadows Farm in western New York state and the Saturday morning farmers market at 14th and U. Speaking of vegetables, vegetarians and vegans will find little to savor at Nama Ko. Watson is aware of the issue and is working to create more options for plant-based diners.

Nama Ko’s truffle miso honey soft serve Credit: Nevin Martell

Meals end with … you didn’t guess it: soft serve. Executive pastry chef Alex Levin created two top scoring treats. The first is tangy-sweet coconut mango yuzu sorbet crowned with lychee sauce, crumbled matcha shortbread, and candied walnuts.

The other is a head-spinner: truffled miso honey ice cream, its spire drizzled with chocolate sauce and Japanese brown sugar caramel, finished with shaved chocolate and toffee bits. I know, I know, it sounds like it won’t all work together, but trust me, it does. It’s a sweet-salty umami explosion, like super indulgent Heath Bar ice cream with the savory factor pumped up just enough so it never overwhelms. Creative, exuberant, and untethered from tradition, it’s the epitome of Nama Ko, and it just might be the best dessert in D.C. right now.

Nama Ko, 1926 14th St. NW. (202) 319-1400, nama-ko.com

Got a tip on a new restaurant opening? Email goodtaste@washingtoncitypaper.com. Follow Nevin on Instagram @nevinmartell and on Twitter @nevinmartell.