JOSE GOES MEXICAN: The appetizer-sized plates, the inviting interior, the young and knowledgeable staff . . . if you didn't know who was behind Oyamel (2550 B Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703-413-2288) before you sat down, you probably would after ordering the house margarita.
The otherwise classic cocktail sports a cap of foam that the menu describes as "sea air," but that a server reveals as "water, lime and salt emulsified with soy lecithin," the latter a natural food stabilizer derived from soy beans. The whimsical drink tastes like something chef Jose Andres, the kitchen magician behind the experimental Minibar in Penn Quarter, might whip up. And it is. Oyamel's dozens of appetizers (what Mexicans refer to as antojitos) -- oyster seviche, fried potatoes with mole, bean-stuffed plantain fritters -- also strike a familiar chord.
"We believe in small plates!" Andres jokes about the restaurant group that brought a world of snacks to Washington, beginning with Spanish tapas at Jaleo and more recently, Middle Eastern mezze at Zaytina. Yet the busy chef insists that his latest production is not meant to be just another pretty face, driven by a formula. "I don't want to be trendy."
The just-opened restaurant takes its name from a sacred fir forest, which also happens to include the home base of Diana Kennedy, the respected Mexican cooking authority. Details major and minor reinforce Oyamel's realism. Tortillas are patted out by hand, using fresh masa. The white cheese that sneaks into several recipes is imported from Oaxaca, Mexico. And Andres has tapped Cristina Kiewek, a former sous chef at Restaurant Nora and a native of Mexico, to play that role at Oyamel.
Even the design nods to a grand tradition: swarms of beautiful tin butterflies hover over the tables in the orange-glowing dining room, representing the annual migration of millions of monarchs to central Mexico.
Small plates $3.50-$9; entrees $14.95-$18.95.