Tonight was my 40 year high school reunion (Montgomery Blair '64). After months of relative starvation and averaging 30+ miles per week of walking my weight hit its lowest point in ten years. Since my last reunion.
After several hours I decided that I had unnecessarily deprived myself of thousands of worthwhile calories for a specious reason; therefore we left and drove straight to Crystal City from Bethesda to recapture a 60's indulgence of an insatiable need for Mexican munchies.
Six thousand calories and 14 (yes, 14 dishes) later I am convinced that I made a good decision. And, no, Oyamel has nothing in common with any other Mexican/Tex Mex restaurant this side of Chicago. In fact it's flavors have more in common with Rick Bayless' Topolobampo and Frontera Grill than anyplace else that comes to mind in the U. S.
All dishes are "small dishes" in the style of Jaleo and Zaytinya. For appetizers there are five ceviches including oyster with salsa verde, tomatillo and cilantro, another with clams in their own juice, a crab cocktail with tomato sauce, onions and avocado, a scallop ceviche with citrus-roe sauce and the best: salmon ceviche with passion fruit and epazote
(generally somewhat similar to cilantro). This, in my opinion, is the single best ceviche in any restaurant in the D. C. area. Four or five unique bites with intense, satisfying flavor that lingers long after it is over.
Another first course is "Huachinango a la Veracruzana." The "red snapper Vera Cruz" is everything that Ceiba's and Rosa Mexicano are not. Served with fresh tomato, capers, olives and jalapeno relish the small filets of red snapper are lightly floured and crisply fried. A slight crust with moist flaky fish inside offset with the contrasting colorful flavorful veggies this is an outstanding dish. Along with the salmon ceviche these are absolute must orders.
With the first courses crispy fried plaintain strips are served with a thick, green cilantro based salsa. A second excellent salsa based on smoky chipotle chiles is also offered. Both in combination with the plaintain chips put tortilla chips and salsa to shame.
A Tarascan bean and tortilla soup was especially interesting. Not as thick as I might have preferred yet the flavor was intense and satisfying, unique from what I had in an obsessive search through Texas for tortilla soup this past summer. My wife noted that I obviously had been searching in the wrong country! This was different from El Paso's Camino Real (best I found) yet strikingly delicious in its own way. My only criticism is that I would have preferred it a bit creamier.
We had several tacos including "pit barbecued pork with pickled red onion" and "shredded savory chicken with chipotle and green tomatoes." The first was frankly a disappointment. There was little in common with what I've had over the years eating my way through the South. The second, the chicken, was another matter. Delicious! Absolutely delicious. With some of the green cilantro based sauce spooned on top it was the stuff of dreams!
And, our waiter said that we hadn't even ordered the best taco: braised beef tongue with pasilla and radishes! A reason to return....
There were other interesting dishes: "Conejo con huitlacoche y maiz" which is braised rabbit with huitlacoche and roasted corn. The sauce had an incredible depth of flavor-just superb!
A poblano chile stuffed with picadillo covered in fresh walnut sauce and pomegranate was also excellent. As was a dish of melted Chihuahua cheese with tequila. This was an interesting and delicious variation on queso fundido, superior to any that I have had in the D. C area.
All the while I nursed an "airy" frothy margerita that at first I absolutely loved. Yet, several sips into its "salt air" I decided that it was a novelty and I preferred a more basic margarita with a top shelf tequila on the rocks similar to what I've had at Guajillo.
Somewhere in the midst of all this there were several more dishes that we each had bites of. At some point this all began to meld together and I honestly cannot remember what they were. I do know that 45 minutes into this feast I began to believe that Jose Andres had topped himself with this restaurant which I believe is already his best. I am serious in this statement.
My conviction came with one of two desserts we tried. Simply, it is the most original and best dessert that I have had in the United States in the past several years. Hyperbole? Well yes. But it's also true.
"Milk chocolate flan with espresso, piloncillo and spice" for $6.95 is a Great dish, a world class dessert, topping even Michel Richard's best for taste and texture. A half inch thick pool of Mexican chocolate custard, flavored with spice, espresso and dark brown sugar is balanced with homemade vanilla ice cream. Layers of flavor and intensity. Honestly, the best dessert that I have had in the D. C. area in a long while.
A second dessert of "warm chocolate cake with mole crema, spiced hot chocolate and vanilla ice cream" was good but not distinguished. I should note that my wife preferred this to the unusual and striking flavors of "Cafe de Olla" that I raved about above.
For six months I thought CityZen (reported last week) was the cutting edge Fall restaurant opening that would lead D. C. into the new year. I was wrong. As much as I liked CityZen, Oyamel is the restaurant that people around the country will talk about. I can only thank Jose Andres for introducing these remarkable and intense flavors to us.
For me it is already a strong three stars...on the second night of it's "public" operation.