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The Butterfly Effect

At Oyamel, small dishes and a whimsically elegant setting add up to big results

By Tom Sietsema

Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page W23

** Oyamel Cocina Mexicana
2250 S. Crystal Dr. (at 23rd Street), Arlington. 703-413-2288.
www.oyamel.com
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for light fare Monday through Friday 2:30 to 5 p.m.; for dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5 to 11 p.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted only for seatings between 5 and 6:30 p.m. Smoking in bar area only. Metro: Crystal City. Valet parking at dinner. Prices: small plates $3.50 to $9; lunch entrees $6.95; dinner entrees $14.95 to $18.95. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $45 per person.

Some people dream of an audience with the pope or the president. Chef Jose Andres simply wanted a few moments with Diana Kennedy, the famous authority on Mexican cooking.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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In preparation for the launch of Oyamel in October, Andres -- the creative spirit behind Cafe Atlantico, Zaytinya, Minibar and multiple branches of Jaleo -- took nearly 10 trips to Mexico for inspiration. Before his visit in December 2003, Andres says, he e-mailed Kennedy from Washington to arrange some face time at her home in Michoacan.

"Call me when you get to Mexico," she instructed. So he did, only to have her say: "I'm having lunch with a friend right now. Call me later." On the third call, Andres's culinary heroine was just as blunt: "You've caught me at a bad time." Disappointed but tenacious, the chef got lucky on his eighth attempt a few days later -- sort of. Kennedy agreed to see him, but only on the day that he, his family and colleagues had planned to trek to the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico to see one of the world's marvels, the winter hideaway of millions of monarch butterflies.

Could he come the day after? Andres wondered. "No! What will I do with all this food I made for you?" came the answer. Andres ended up lunching with the author and forgoing the monarchs.

He sees them now, though, every time he visits his new restaurant, where two enormous swarms of tin butterflies flutter high above the heads of diners in the expansive main dining room; suspended before a light-blue panel on the rear wall, they appear to be flying toward clear skies.

No less inspiring is the rest of the space, awash in soothing oranges and golds and made warmer still by an open tiled kitchen near the entrance and a long communal table, flanked with handsome scooped pigskin chairs, in the room's center.

Oyamel's menu copies the format at Andres's other ventures. The idea of small plates and abundant choices popularized at Jaleo and Zaytinya reappears here, in the form of dozens of antojitos, or Mexican appetizers. "Order three or four per person, and share them with each other," a server says, introducing newcomers to the game. A signal of good things to come is a gratis bouquet of slender plantain and corn chips with two sauces, one creamy with avocado, the other smoky with roasted chilies.

The collection of starter-size dishes leaves few tastes behind. There are salads for light eaters, meatless plates for vegetarians and rib-sticking soups and beef for the ravenous.

On the subtle end of the scale is sweet crab with nuggets of avocado and a tomato-lime vinaigrette, all kept chilled in a cone-shaped goblet set into a second glass of shaved ice. Another elegant plate sets velvety diced raw salmon on a thin pool of oil infused with epazote, a pungent herb widely used in central and southern Mexico. Equally fetching are the colorful salads, one of hearts of palm tossed with orange, lime and radish, another of crisp-fleshed chayote (tropical squash) accessorized with crumbled cheese, peanuts and a sharp red dressing of hibiscus flower and onion. Oyamel also offers the uncommon opportunity to sample dragon fruit, or pitahaya. The skin of the oval fruit is crimson, its white flesh freckled with small black seeds and resembling a cross between a kiwi and a pear. A squeeze of fresh lime over the diced fruit makes for a cool treat.

The starches rock, too. One of Oyamel's simplest pleasures is a fresh corn tamale set off with what looks like a pat of butter but is actually mellow white Mexican cheese. This custard-textured snack is as soothing as a back rub. Then there are tacos, delicious soft tortillas wrapped around a choice of five fillings and served upright, three to a tray. The boldest of the bunch is oxtail, its deep richness contrasted with pineapple and cilantro; the lightest is shredded chicken with green tomatoes. Only the fried fish tacos disappointed me; the fish tasted muddy when I last sampled it.

Is the food too citified? Andres mounts a defense when he hears the question, pointing out that while his food is prettily arranged and served on arty dishware, the flavors are similar to what you get from vendors south of the border. Exhibit A: quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms, a common sight on the streets of Oaxaca, he says. And specials such as pork with hominy (puffed white corn) in spicy red broth show off the cuisine's more rustic side.

"We make our own sour mix for the margaritas," a waiter tells me one night, and it shows in drinks that are bright and tangy, free of the usual chemical aftertaste. "Warm tortillas," someone else says, placing a woven basket of soft, saucer-shaped rounds on the table. They are made by hand and are nice companions to this cooking. A poblano chile plumped with raisins, prunes and apricots, blanketed in a smooth walnut sauce and sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds wins me over with its dueling flavors and textures, as do rosy fingers of succulent beef, sprinkled with peanuts and poised atop an inky black and pleasantly biting chile sauce.

Oyamel gets many of the important details down, but not all of them. Food orders sometimes arrive so quickly after they've been placed, it's as if the kitchen had read your mind about what you would order when you walked in the door. Drink requests, on the other hand, can take so long, it's as if they were being poured in another area code. The same kitchen that imports cheese from Mexico and offers dragon fruit salad also serves teardrop tomatoes of no flavor in a salad of pork rinds, and dull, out-of-season strawberries with an otherwise refreshing pomegranate-flavored shaved ice. Where's the respect for eating things in their time and place? A few clinkers also remain on the menu. Quail garnished with rose petals starts off dramatically, as the lid of its container is removed and a cloud of sweet steam tickles diners' noses. Alas, the quail turns out to be dry and the flowers too potent. Sampling this is like eating perfume. And braised lamb tucked into a filmy purse made from cactus heart and unwrapped at the table proves underwhelming, despite the roasted chilies, dried avocado and bitter orange juice that are meant to give it heft.

Yet, with so many fine choices offered at agreeable prices -- the average cost per antojito is $6 -- it's easy to pardon a few slips. Even as it finds its way, Oyamel brings Mexico closer to Washington.

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No detail is too small for some diners. "Who wrote the menu?" Ellen Paul wanted to know after dining at Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill. "The effort to be sophisticated comes off as silly pretentiousness," the Chevy Chase reader complained in an e-mail. She was put off by, among other food titles, Chicken Roti. "If I'm expected to know that roti is French for roasted, shouldn't I also know that poulet is French for chicken?" she wrote. Chef-owner Jeff Buben explained that he mixes French and English words on his menu as a way to simplify ordering for diners who might be intimidated by asking for a dish using its French name. "The idea is to make it fun," to hint at what's to come, he added. Anyway, nothing is forever; Buben said he rewrites his menu, incorporating customer feedback, eight times a year.

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