More than anyone else, José Andrés has changed the face of eating out in this city, rearranging the features as if he were playing with Mr. Potato Head. That face was, just a decade ago, a complacent gray mug. Steakhouses and expense-account dens so predominated that power dining was pretty much the only dining of consequence. Then Andrés blew into town, combining the flinty ambition of a frontier gunslinger and the genre-blurring instincts of a crossover-era pop star.
With the small-plate-dominated menus at Jaleo and Café Atlántico, he demonstrated that a chef’s experimentation didn’t have to mean a chef’s self-indulgence. His spaces, whether quaintly traditional or sleekly modernist, had a clubby, members-only look, but it wasn’t just the beautiful people who thronged to them; tabs were gentle enough to attract the beautiful-on-the-inside people, too. And you could finally go out to eat at a nice place in this famously conservative city in jeans and shirttails.
As Andrés indulged his fantasies at more and more outlets—Zaytinya in 2002, Minibar in 2003, plus two more Jaleos—imitators began cranking out copies. Small plates spread like a contagion, Adamstein & Demetriou ended up designing every third restaurant that opened, and a wait-and-see attitude unthinkable even five years ago now attends the launch of every ambitious cafe with good lighting. Dining out in Washington has become undeniably more hip, more casual, more experimental, and more democratized.
So in some ways, Andrés’ new place, Oyamel, is a casualty of his own revolution, of the inevitable expectations raised by his unprecedented success. The space is soaring, beautiful, and colorful; the exotic ingredients and intriguing juxtapositions dazzle; and the conventional division of courses has been happily obliterated. And much has been made, not just by Andrés and his publicity machine, of the chef’s painstakingly researched efforts to deliver at Oyamel a sophisticated brand of Mexican cuisine. But the place disappoints.
What Andrés has done is something more, and something less, than reproducing the flavors of authentic regional Mexican cooking. What he has done is to Andrés-ize it, subsuming the hearty (guisadas, tacos, stews, tamales) and the richly layered (moles, tingas) into his small-plates world as antojitos, or “little whims.” The result is a slate of tiny, eye-catching dishes that can lively up a tableful of Crystal City office drones just as quickly as the bar’s salt-air margaritas.
But your ability to maintain that feel-good vibe is dependent on your reserve of patience. Though its tiny plates are far from the boutiquery of Minibar, Oyamel requires a similar willingness to go along for the ride, to dismiss the bumps along the way as part of the adventure. That’s easy enough when you’re on a roll, as I was for several dishes on one visit: a Veracruz-style red snapper with olives and onions; a light, cheesy, potato cake with a tangy tomatillo sauce; a dish of lentils with pineapple and plantain.
But it can be frustrating when you’re not. My first meal saw more spikes and dips than the Dow Jones: No sooner had I despaired over a plate of overdone fried potatoes doused in a gloppy, smoky chili sauce and cotija cheese than I was slurping up some wonderfully briny oysters with a lime foam. Next came a wild-mushroom soup, which made up for what it lacked in caramelized depth with an abundance of salt. That was chased by a cool, clean “purse” of jicama, enclosing a spoonful of freshly made guacamole. I hoped for a run of successes, but got only a dry rabbit draped with an earthy, satiny sauce of corn and huitlacoche (yup, that’s corn smut) and a round of salty, oddly flavorless tacos.
The tacos, made on imported comales, are a point of pride at Oyamel. Of the 10 varieties offered, though, I was enamored only of the oxtail and the braised baby pig, with its garnish of lacy fried pork rinds. Many of the descriptions are tantalizing (Yucatan-style pit-barbecued pork with pickled red onion), but the tacos lack the sloppy synergy of all great sandwiches. They taste, finally, too assembled, too clean.
Often, the less beguiling-sounding the descriptor, the better; Andrés’ propensity for ornamentation works best on the simpler dishes. A lush coconut sauce enlivens an order of plantain fritters; tiny leaves of epazote, a mintlike herb, elevate a plate of refried beans. And a smoky slick of almond mole turns grilled cambray onions into something worth paying attention to.
Pastry chef Steve Klc’s desserts—including an anise-perfumed chocolate flan and a molten chocolate cake that oozes warm, spicy mole—reveal a fascinating interplay of textures, of savory and sweet. Seldom do you find this degree of sophistication anymore without reaching into double digits, and few finishes in town are stronger.
You leave with a smile. But you’re also likely leave vaguely unfulfilled, with a sense that what once felt radical is starting to feel a little reflexive. You can hardly blame Andrés for sticking with a model that has spawned six successful restaurants. And the laughing, drinking hordes that make the place feel slammed even on a midweek night are proof that Andrés can deliver a crowd pleaser. But you may wonder what might have been had the chef adapted his formula to meet the needs of the cuisine rather than the other way around.
Oyamel, 2250 Crystal Drive, Arlington, (703) 413-2288.—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.