Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dinner | Oyamel

Per the recommendation on the Gastronomer's blog, I made reservations for the evening we spent in DC with Angela and Krystal (the one who accompanied me to craftbar last fall) at Chef José Andrés' Oyamel in the neighborhood of Penn's Quarter. Chef Andrés aims to capture "Mexico's rich, regional diversity with the modern, urban atmosphere of Mexico City" here at Oyamel, which incidentally alludes to the "Sacred Fir"--native to the mountains of central and southern Mexico. The "Sacred Fir" is named after the use of cut foliage in religious festivals in Mexico, particularly at Christmas. As such, the oyamel is the preferred tree for the Monarch butterfly (also represented in the restaurant's logo) to reside in colonies during its hibernation in Mexico.

Inside Oyamel's dining room.

Another ode to the Monarch butterfly in the main dining room--mobiles with butterflies!

Every table starts with the chips (fresh masa, fried daily, seasoned with a house-made blend of chiles, salt, and tequila) and salsa (smokey chipotle chiles, onions, and field-ripened tomatoes made fresh every day). The first one is on the restaurant, and any additional chips and salsa is on you! The chips were very fresh and really light, and the salsa was very much different from the redsalsa Americans are used to seeing at the grocery store. This was more smokey and earthy in flavor (not so much sweet and tart), and I think it's great that they make it fresh daily--makes it that much better!

We ordered a side of guacamole made on the spot with green tomatillo, serrano chile, and a basket of fresh tortilla chips for the table. Nothing better to start off a dinner at a Mexican restaurant than with some freshly pestled guacamole in a mortar! It was very fresh and had some newly added spices I've never had in guacamole before which I really enjoyed. I could have done without the raw onions and cilantro, though. Wish I had spoken up! But not all was lost--it was still great!

The menu was comprised of tacos, sopas, and antojitos (the menu describes these as "little dishes from the streets," as they are ultimately traditional snacks or small plates). We went the antojito route and shared a few of them among the four of us.

Marcus ordered first antojito--the camarones al mojo de ajo negro, which was shrimp sautéed with shallots, arbol chile, poblano chile, lime, and sweet aged black garlic. I thought this was a really awesome shrimp dish. The aged black garlic and shallots added a sweet pungency to the shrimp, while the chiles gave it a little kick of spice. I had to eat mine in little pieces because it was very spicy for me, as I have a very mild palate. Love the bowl, too!

Next came the dish Angela and I ordered to share between us--the mejillones al tequila con chipotle, which were steamed mussels with tequila, sautéed garlic, and chipotle sauce. If you can execute a bucket of mussels with bold flavors and enjoyable juiciness, you're good in my book! Steaming tequila with garlic and chipotle sauce was a great combination of flavors that the mussels soaked in all the flavor, making for some juicy mussels! These are definitely worth sharing for the table!

Marcus's other antojito was the huachinango a la Veracruzana, which was seared red snapper, Veracruz-style, with tomatoes, onions, jalapeño chiles, olives, and capers. For lovers of capers, this would be right up your alley, but for Marcus and me, who aren't too fond of the strong, salty flavor from capers (especially from eating them directly), the taste of the red snapper suffered a lot. Seeing the capers in the ingredient listing should have been a red flag for us not to order it, but alas, we didn't realize how intense the added flavor would be. In fact, the flavor of the tomatoes were overshadowed by those tiny little pickled, cooked flower buds! So this antojito is yay for caper lovers, nay for its opponents.

Angela went with the arrachera con salsa molcajete, which was grilled skirt steak with a sauce of grilled tomatoes, tomatillos, green onions, cilantro, and green chiles, garnished with pickled cactus paddle, as her antojito. This was definitely one of my favorites of the night (even if I only had a couple bites from it). The skirt steak was really soft and was cooked to the optimal temperature (in between medium rare and medium). The sauce went well with the steak as well--reminded me of the Italian version of steak pizzaiola. I highly recommend this one!

Krystal had the ensalada de palmitos, which had julienned fresh Hamakua Farms hearts of palm with citrus, radish, and avocado with a tamarind dressing. I had tried the hearts of palm fries over at Yerba Buena Perry and became really intrigued with the texture of the hearts of palm. Subsequent to my visit, I read an article in Saveur about the increasing popularity of using hearts of palm in salads, starter dishes (particularly mentioning the fries at YBP, disclosing a recipe), and main courses, so this was something I was excited to try. The tartness from the citrus and tamarind dressing added some dimension to the crunchiness of the hearts of palm (otherwise, it'd be bland in flavor)--almost making it like pickled slaw. The avocado grounded the citrus flavors and the crunchiness with its added buttery, rich texture--a winning combination. I thought this salad was really refreshing, healthy and seems like a great salad recipe for any party--I want to experiment with trying to replicate this salad for sure.

For my antojito, I ordered the cayo de hacha con pipián de chile pasilla, which were seared scallops with a pasilla chile and pumpkin seed sauce, orange segments, pumpkin seed oil, and toasted pumpkin seeds. The scallops were great--cooked thoroughly through without being overdone--and the toasted pumpkin seeds added a light earthiness to the scallops. My only reservation about this dish was the pumpkin seed sauce was a bit overpowering, almost taking away from the seared flavor of the scallops--I felt it was a bit thick. I didn't add any extra sauce after I cut the scallops into smaller pieces, which remediated the issue for me.

Me, Angela, and Krystal at Oyamel.

Findings: I was really impressed by Oyamel and its ability to execute authentic Mexican cuisine in a modern atmosphere. Many times, I feel like Mexican cuisine is downgraded by American stereotypes where everything is just a mishmosh of ground beef, cheese, sour cream, beans, and tortillas. Those stereotypes, when practiced on a given restaurant's menu, tend to stray away from authenticity and traditional cuisine--i.e., everything always seems drowned in cheese or beans. Chef Andrés really did Mexican cuisine much justice--it is typically hard for me to find a Mexican restaurant that doesn't place overemphasis on cheese (especially for someone like me who is borderline lactose intolerant), but I think Oyamel is my saving grace. The scarcity of cheese on the menu gave me more options to choose from (as opposed to past visits to Mexican restaurants where I would just scan the list for items sans cheese). While there was a dish or two that I wasn't particularly fond of, I still acknowledge the restaurant's diverse (and quite delicious) menu offerings. I regret not trying a margarita, as the restaurant's margarita offerings are part of its signature items--definitely on the list for my next visit (along with seared octopus on the antojito menu). Highly recommended items are the freshly made guacamole and house-made salsa, the mussels (mejillones al tequila con chipotle) for sharing, and the hearts of palm salad (ensalada de palmitos).

Price point: $13.50 for guacamole to share with chips, $9.50 for the ensalada, $8.50-12 for each antojito.

--March 26, 2011

401 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004

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