Sense of Plates Oyamel moves to the District to work.

No Butterflies: Raffa produces one small wonder after another.
Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

The relocated Oyamel reminds me of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. You know, the porcelain john that the surrealist purchased, signed, and submitted to a major exhibition. Duchamp was trying to say something about context: Move an everyday object from one place to another, and it too can be art.

Don’t get me wrong. The old Oyamel in Crystal City was not a toilet, and the new place is not a culinary work of art on the level of Michel Richard Citronelle. But Oyamel’s move to Penn Quarter has transformed an average Mexican antojitos restaurant into a terrific one, even though the menu and the look of the place remain largely the same.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Some history is in order. José Andrés and Rob Wilder’s Próximo Restaurants (now THINKfoodGROUP) rolled the dice and opened Oyamel in Crystal City in 2004, gambling that Charles E. Smith Commercial Realty could refashion the land of the laminated badge into a bustling urban playground for someone, anyone, daring enough to venture into this contractors’ canyon after 5 p.m. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Oyamel was “losing a lot of money,” Andrés says. Location was only one of the problems; apparently some diners couldn’t differentiate between Oyamel’s Mexican small plates and the Spanish ones next door at Jaleo. “We believed that Jaleo and Oyamel were competing for almost the same market,” says Andrés, whose group owns both operations. “We were not different enough for some people.”

Adapting the U.S. Army’s strategy at Ben Tre—“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”—Andrés and company realized they needed to kill off the Crystal City Oyamel in order to save the Jaleo outlet. Andrés’ team found a relatively easy out when Roberto Donna needed a spot to move his operations while Galileo undergoes renovations in D.C. Donna took over the Oyamel space (and lease) for his Bebo Trattoria, and Andrés decided to shift his Mexican restaurant to the former Andale location on 7th Street NW.

The change of scenery has done wonders for Oyamel. The intimate Penn Quarter space suits the cuisine far better than the cavernous Crystal City location with its grand-ballroom-like ceiling that all but swallowed up those faux monarch butterflies hovering above the dining room. The same artistic insects float overhead in D.C., but now they’re practically within arm’s reach. The main dining area shares the same color scheme and artistic temperament as the old space, but the new location often crackles with noise. With a seviche bar in the corner, nonstop video projected overhead, and a large, candy-cane-shaped banquette that invites goodwill among patrons, the space has less majesty and more warmth, which seems about right.

But can a fresh space alone revitalize a menu that, as Andrés admits, is basically the same one Oyamel opened with in Crystal City? Or maybe Joe Raffa is the reason for Oyamel’s newfound vitality? Andrés plucked Raffa, a former sous chef at Café Atlántico, from the Majestic Café in Alexandria and installed him as head chef here, a position that has more to do with kitchen management than menu creation.

Frankly, I think Penn Quarter and Joe Raffa should receive equal credit. Raffa seems to have injected more discipline into the kitchen, which itself appears to feed on the energy and racket of the customers who now pack Oyamel. It feels like a healthy symbiotic relationship.

With that said, Raffa’s kitchen is still handcuffed by some plates that smack of the fussy preparations that Andrés learned at the feet of his molecular Spanish mentor, Ferrán Adrià. The ensalada de Alex-Cesar Cardini is a sort of deconstructed Caesar that pays tribute to the Italian brothers who claim to have invented it in Tijuana (separately, mind you). Perfectly uniform romaine leaves lie on top of, or next to, one another in a bowl; a wafer-thin house-made crouton, more a long cracker than a collection of crunchy boulders, is dropped like a piece of plywood across the feet of the lettuce, while slivers of anchovies are sprinkled near the leafy ends. The salad looks great; too bad the dressing tastes like key lime pie and the crouton requires messy handling to make it edible.

Other salads fall into the same beauty-over-taste trap, notably the ensalada de chayote, in which thin slices of mild Mexican squash are sprinkled with crumbly double-cream cheese and crushed peanuts then coated in a hibiscus dressing that looks like the juices released from a medium-rare steak. I’d rather take a picture of it than eat it. Same for the neon-bright nopalitos salad with tomatoes, in which the crunch of the baby cactus trumps its flavor.

Once you skid past the salad menu, though, you’re free to experiment with the small plates and seviches with little to no fear of disappointment. The scallop seviche is actually a plate of three sea shells in which citrus-cured bay scallops lie in a fruit-juice liquid—sort of a colorful version of half-shell oysters in their liquor—along with orange and lime segments that play the tart foil to the bivalve’s deliciously sweet flesh. The salmon seviche, paired with passion fruit, forces the epazote-herb oil to tamp down all the tartness, a role the fatty, pungent oil easily aces.

Some of these antojitos are so tasty I’d like to order them on a conveyor belt straight from the downstairs kitchen, one after another after another. My conveyor belt would begin (and likely end) with the chile en nogada, a poblano fattened with a sweet, meaty mixture of ground beef, tomato, and pineapple bits; the dish’s nutty, cheesy sauce, cut with pomegranates, almost dares the pepper to bust through its dominant flavors, but somehow the poblano’s heat suffuses every bite. The oxtail tacos, layered with thin strips of pineapple, are nowhere near as complex, but they pull off the same sweet-meat balancing act that proves so satisfying.

As you’d expect from any kitchen trying to serve regional Mexican food, seeds and nuts play a major role at Oyamel. Mole, naturally, makes several appearances, including on a moist, tender chicken dish that’s blanketed under an almond-heavy chocolate sauce. But my favorite use of seeds occurs in a seared-scallop dish in which the mollusks are accented with three different pumpkin-seed applications: a sauce, an infused oil, and toasted seeds. Each adds its own thing—maybe a crunch, maybe an earthy sweetness—to those little pieces of sea candy.

You might be tempted to pair these bite-sized nibbles with an Oyamel margarita, a pint-sized cocktail topped with Andrés’ signature salt-air, but I’d advise against it. At $10 a pop for what my bartender suspects is no more than 6 or so ounces of liquid, you seem to be paying more for the privilege of quaffing in Penn Quarter than for the drink itself. Overpriced downtown drinks—that’s one practice I’d like to see Andrés flush down the toilet.

Oyamel, 410 7th Street NW, (202) 628-1005

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to hungry@washingtoncitypaper.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x 466.

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