Oyamel: More than margaritas

Striding into Oyamel’s bright, kinetic new home on Penn Quarter’s 7th Street, you may feel pangs of déjà vu. For anyone who visited the restaurant’s cavernous former digs in Crystal City, or its sister restaurants run by Washington super-chef Jose Andres, Oyamel will feel a little familiar.

But to experience Oyamel fully, you should shrug off the second-guessing and deliberations. If you see something interesting, point to it — especially the grasshoppers.

Yes, Oyamel serves grasshoppers, not the sticky-sweet cocktails or the squirming specimens gulped down on “Survivor,” but crunchy, peppery gems of protein that are favored snacks in Mexico’s Yucatán region. Fried in shallots and tequila, clustered beneath a cloud of guacamole and tucked inside a handmade tortilla, Oyamel’s grasshoppers are not to be missed.
Want a less exotic starter? Oyamel has few of the Mexican staples that American diners seek out (no fajitas here), but Andres’s offerings, dished out at the new location by executive chef Joe Raffa, play to seafood-lovers in particular.

Three fish dishes stand out among Oyamel’s “antojitos,” or “little dishes from the streets.” Nothing in the miraculously light seared scallops recalls pumpkin at first taste, but the celery-hued sauce and dark oil are both made from subtly nutty pumpkin seeds.

The red snapper in Veracruz style is another winner, bathed in a slightly sweet tomato confit with olives and capers that recalls a Mexican version of a puttanesca sauce. The salmon is exceptional, paired with a pumpkin seed-based mole verde that knocks you flat with perfect chili flavor.

Ceviches are also a signature at Oyamel, assembled by a graceful crew at the south corner of the dining room that also carves wispy sorbet shells onto desserts. Try the lighter red snapper but avoid overly trendy dressings, like the epazote herb oil in the salmon ceviche.

If the vast menu of antojitos and single tacos appears dizzying at first, Andres’s crew will seduce you with beverages alone. During my trips to Oyamel, newbie diners were observed spending quality time with a margarita and gazing at the ceiling, agog at the host of metal butterflies descending on wisps of tin.

This is a stunning but deliberate touch in Oyamel’s design. The restaurant is named for the Oyamel fir tree in Michoacán, Mexico, to which monarch butterflies flock during annual nesting rituals. As for the margaritas, their status as official cocktail of Mexico has sent two traditional margarita recipes to Oyamel’s menu.

The “Oyamel” margarita is almost too soft on the palate to be believed, a froth of salty foam bubbles replacing the usual salt rim. I preferred the “Classic” margarita, which has more heft and a splash of orange juice, as well as the decadent fuchsia-hued hibiscus margarita, with just the right amount of sweetness.

Oyamel offers a handful of other drinks, making the roomy bar area a scene unto itself. The excellent Mexican gin and tonic is injected with jade from infusions of cilantro and cucumber, but the strangely popular tamarind tea is thick as melted Jello and almost as candy-like.

Ordering well at Oyamel often means taking with a grain of salt suggestions from servers, who vary from vaguely aware of diners’ needs to persistently hovering. Some have knowledge of unique dishes’ origins, but others were unwilling to help with ordering.

So watching the ingredients is one rule of thumb for making the most out of Oyamel, where a mind-expanding evening can cost anywhere from $30 (for two margaritas and grasshopper tacos) to nearly half a week’s paycheck. The same ingredients often show up in multiple places on the menu, like — well, OK, like grasshoppers, hopping into entrees, antojitos and desserts, tasting different every time.

Mexico’s traditional mole poblano sauce of chili and chocolate shows up in four dishes: flash-fried potato wedges, a full-size portion of grilled chicken, Cambray onions and in cream form atop warm chocolate cake. The mole is deliciously rich, but far heavier on the sweet than the spicy in Oyamel’s rendition.

 Queso fresco, an overlooked garnish at other Mexican restaurants, is made delightful at Oyamel with goat’s milk rather than cow’s. That cheese appears in a smoky wild mushroom enchilada, chipotle-doused meatballs and the superb guacamole, which becomes a theatrical event that’s worth every penny of its $13 price tag.

The waiter arrives with perfectly ripe Hass avocados and undresses them inside a volcanic-stone pot called a molcajetes, adding small ramekins of sea salt, serrano pepper, cilantro, tomatillo and the pungent queso fresco. Oyamel’s mediocre house tortilla chips will be thrilled to meet the guacamole.

Oyamel’s meat dishes are less impressive than the seafood, particularly the shredded chicken taco, which leaked thick oil from its chorizo accompaniment. The skirt steak with onions is a commendable cut of meat, but too much chipotle left its tomato-based sauce top-heavy with smokiness.

If you can tear your gaze from the colorful and artfully arranged plates, Oyamel’s busy décor is a feast for the eyes. The main dining room’s glow comes from no fewer than 10 styles of lighting, from massive candelabras to sconces setting off Mexican masks. The back room is home to an eye-popping, floor-to-ceiling mural.

And, of course, the metal butterflies. As unique as they are, however, the flying beauties are only the second most entrancing aspect of Oyamel. First prize goes to the “Café de Olla” dessert, a sensual custard of milk chocolate and spicy Chiapas coffee speckled with cubes of Kahlua gelatin.

Star-anise ice cream, crumbled cookies and syrup of piloncillo sugar completes the symphony of textures and tastes. Other top-notch desserts abound, from authentic Mexican hot chocolate to a goat’s milk caramel spiked by coconut sorbet, but the Olla custard embodies Oyamel itself: so packed with multiple pleasures that any low notes are drowned out.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Reservations accepted on a limited basis during dinner.