May 2005: Oyamel
Very good, with an opportunity to sample a wide range of preparations.
Mexican Small Plates in Crystal City
Oyamel breaks the mold of the traditional Mexican restaurant. In the ground floor of a new office building, it is an attractive restaurant, bringing to mind the soaring ceilings and elegance of 2941 in Falls Church. Blocks of color—rust red, mustard, pale yellow—enliven the walls of the roomy dining area. Mobiles consisting of scores of shimmering metal butterflies hang from the 30-foot-high ceiling; the back wall boasts a striking pale-blue abstract painting illuminated from the back and sides. There is bar-type seating for those dining alone or in a hurry. For large groups there is a long table in the middle of the dining room.
Servers welcome diners with a basket of tortilla chips and crisped plantains with a pair of sauces, one a stinging smoky chipotle, the other milder with avocado.
The format will be familiar to patrons who have dined at Jaleo and Zaytinya, which share owners and vision. (A branch of Jaleo is next door.) The menu is dominated by small plates, or antojitos—cousins of the more familiar tapas—that cost about $6 each at dinner, a dollar less at lunch. The ideal meal is to order three or four per person and share. Also on the menu are several main courses that are larger servings of the antojitos, a quartet of soups, and some tacos, which are smaller than most and served as a trio for about $8.
Vegetable-based treats include a salad of young cactus leaves with tomatoes, prickly-pear dressing, and cilantro; grilled Cambray onions with almond mole; and the Chihuahua cheese with tequila and wild mushrooms. Meat fanciers will enjoy the braised rabbit with huitlacoche sauce, the corn masa with chorizo and potatoes, the quail in rose petals, and the half Cornish hen with mole poblano. Seafood treats include seared scallops with pumpkin-seed sauce and red snapper Veracruz style with tomatoes, capers, olives, and onions. Most come with warm tortillas.
Beyond the antojitos, soups are good. Try the Tarascan bean soup with fried tortilla, ancho chilies, and avocado. Tacos are filled with the likes of full-bodied braised baby pig and marinated oxtail as well as the lighter seared halibut and sautéed wild mushrooms with garlic and shallots. The main-course-size portions, available only at dinner, include red snapper, quail, and Cornish hen with mole poblano. On a first visit, it's probably better to focus on small dishes. To avoid a bottleneck, order three or four at a time, then another round when those arrive.
The beverage list contains not only the usual suspects, such as margaritas, but also some excellent beers from around Mexico City, plus an impressive selection of wines from what is, or was, the Spanish-speaking world. There are good choices from California, but the surprises include a Pinot Noir from New Mexico and a Bordeaux blend from Baja California. It took an act of faith to order the latter, a 1999 Château Comou Gran Vino Tinto for $72. It was surprisingly good but not a good value.
Baked desserts are good, especially a warm chocolate cake with mole cream, spiced hot chocolate, and vanilla ice cream, but many diners might want something lighter such as a milk-chocolate flan or melon four ways, which includes diced melon and melon sorbet. Coffee, whether simple espresso or something more elaborate, is very good.
2250-B Crystal Dr., Arlington; 703-413-2288; oyamel.com. Open Monday through Friday for lunch, daily for dinner.
Atmosphere: Striking decor, yet comfortable and friendly.
Food: Very good, with an opportunity to sample a wide range of preparations.
Service: Very good—prompt service and knowledgeable responses to questions.
Price: Small plates start at $4 and average about $6, tacos average $7, main courses average $13. Dinner for two: about $60.
Value: Very good.
Bottom line: An ambitious effort to serve authentic dishes of Mexico. Well worth a visit.