- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 1, 2004

First came Jaleo and Spanish tapas. Then Zaytinya arrived with Mediterranean mezes. Now on Crystal City’s Crystal Drive, buzzing with hot new restaurants, chef-partner Jose Andres introduces his newest creation, Mexican antojitos, at Oyamel.

Jaleo, Zaytinya and Oyamel offer small plates and Mr. Andres’ creativity in common, but that’s all. Jaleo, Zaytinya and Oyamel’s cuisines are no more alike than French, Italian and Portuguese cooking. Oyamel is unique.

Monarch butterflies flutter above the central tables in Oyamel’s large dining room. Not real ones, of course, but pretty metal ones. The restaurant is named for the oyamel trees on which the monarchs alight at the end of their 3,000-mile journey every winter from Canada and the Eastern United States to the volcanic highlands of central Mexico.

Mr. Andres is one of Washington’s more ingenious chefs. Oyamel’s dishes reflect a sophisticated melange of traditional Mexican dishes, country cooking and original combinations of fruits, vegetables, meats and spices.

Although the menu offers a few entrees, almost all the dishes are small plates meant to be shared at the table. The meal begins with a cone-shaped basket of plantain crisps with a little dish of guacamole mixed with salsa. Now you’re in the right mood for a glass of wine from the well-priced selections from Mexico — and former Mexican territory such as Southern California and New Mexico — or one of Oyamel’s signature margaritas. This margarita is a tart drink topped with what can only be described as sea foam, a froth made of salt and air topped with a sprinkling of herbs.

The menu is divided into cold appetizers, hot appetizers from the grill, meat dishes, fish dishes, a few soups and tacos. First-time diners could start with the ceviche and fish plates, move on to salads and then to the wealth of warm meat and cheese plates.

A first round of seared scallops, sauteed shrimp and scallop ceviche was terrific. The scallops, seared just enough so they remain tender on the inside, are served in a creamy pumpkin-seed sauce. The sauce is delicate; the pumpkin seeds add little flavor but a nice crunch.

The generous portion of shrimp, cooked just long enough so that the shrimp are not tough, is served in a spicy garlicky sauce enhanced with epazote oil. Epazote is a Mexican herb with a subtle flavor. The ingredients in both these sauces, as is the case in most of Mr. Andres’ sauces, are difficult to identify, but the result is magic.

The scallop ceviche is equally delicious: Diced raw scallops are marinated in a tangy citrus dressing with bits of jicama, orange and onions.

We chose a salad of heart of palm, orange, radish and avocado in tamarind dressing. The fruits and vegetables are cut into a small dice, and the flavors blend in a lovely, refreshing combination. The menu offers a variety of other salads, including cactus leaves with tomatoes in a prickly-pear dressing; chayote with hibiscus, fresh cheese and peanuts; purses of jicama with guacamole in a citrus dressing; and pork rinds with serrano chilies, tomato, onion and radish.

Another saladlike dish is a smooth blend of mild goat cheese and mole wrapped in hoja santa leaves and served with a sweet-tangy tomatillo sauce. The edible leaves have a delicate flavor, and the dish is an excellent combination of unusual elements.

Tacos come in servings of three small, soft corn tortillas filled with either oxtail, barbecued pork, braised beef tongue, shredded chicken or fried tilapia in tomato sauce. We tried the oxtail, which is a rich mixture of shredded meat, marinated in spices, in a dark sauce with onions and cilantro.

Quail in rose-petal sauce is an outstanding meat dish, available either as an appetizer or in a full portion. Served in a creamlike sauce decorated with a few tiny rose petals, both the breast meat and the tiny leg were tender, juicy and finger-lickin’ good.

The braised rabbit was overwhelmed by an oversalted sauce. A dish of lamb, shredded similarly to the oxtail, is served in a slightly sweet sauce with raisins. It’s a good dish, although the lamb flavor remains discreet.

The menu is rich with dozens of other dishes, as varied as squash-blossom quesadillas; grilled onions with almond mole; poblano chili stuffed with picadillo in a walnut-and-pomegranate sauce; beef tenderloin with tamarind sauce; red snapper with tomatoes, capers, olives and onions; and fried potatoes with mole.

The least successful dish we tried was the entree of flank steak served with refried beans, guacamole and a corn tortilla filled with mole and topped with roasted Cambray onions (resembling large spring onions). Flank steak is never as tender as filet, but even so, this flank steak was excessively chewy. The refried beans had virtually no flavor, and even the mole in and on the tortilla was bland and lacked the slightly bitter undercurrent of a true mole.

Be sure to leave room for dessert, for Oyamel has several outstanding concoctions. Warm chocolate cake with a dark, slightly bitter creamy chocolate center is served with vanilla ice cream. A milk-chocolate flan is covered with a delicious, spicy espresso crunch and served with a scoop of ice cream with a mild anise flavor. Both are superb.

Service at Oyamel is friendly and efficient; guests are made to feel welcome. However, the cavernous nature of the restaurant makes it difficult to hear across the table, especially when the restaurant is full. This is not the place for a romantic tete-a-tete. (An impulsive swain would need the public-address system to pop the question here.) However, for a convivial meal, sharing different tastes and textures, dishes well prepared and beautifully served, Oyamel is a winner. Andale, Rosa Mexicano and now Oyamel. Viva Mexico.

RESTAURANT: Oyamel, 2250 Crystal Drive, Arlington; 703/413-2288; reservations taken only for 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and until 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; lunch specials served until 2:30 p.m.

PRICES: Soups and small plates, $4 to $8; entrees, $15 to $19; desserts, $7

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Free parking after 5 p.m. in the garage next door

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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