Location: 2250-B Crystal Drive, Arlington, VA. A 5-10 minute walk from the Crystal City Metro stop.
A cloud of Monarch butterflies thronged above our heads, two stories of grace caught in motion by tin sculpture and wire, the spirit of life inamongst the clean, square, modern lines of the restaurant's main space. The image of Monarchs alights throughout the restaurant: on the sign outside, on the menu. They occupy a restaurant named for the fir trees in which they roost on their annual pilgrimage to Mexico. The butterflies may be sculptures, but the food served at Oyamel really has migrated from Mexico to the U.S., if the unusual tastes, menu descriptions, and other reviewers are to be believed.
My sister's lived in D.C. for two years now, and Oyamel was where she chose to hold her birthday party. We started at the bar, arriving in time for Happy Hour; many of us opted for a salt-free margarita, crisp and tangy, although perhaps a better accompaniament to the free nachos and dips than a drink in its own right. When enough of us had arrived, we were shown to our table. Our numbers continued to grow over the course of the evening: a crowd showed up, but on a Tuesday, there was plenty of room for us to overflow from our table for fifteen.
There were too many of us arriving at too many different times to coordinate our ordering, so waves of food arrived over the course of a few hours. The menu was substantial and varied. Although I only ordered two dishes, many of the people sitting near me were generous enough to allow me to sample their dishes as well.
The "Ensalada de tomate" was a mix of multi-color heirloom tomatoes, onions, shaved radishes, serrano pepper, and a piquant lime vinaigrette, a fresh and vibrant dish balanced between the sweet of the tomatoes, the tart of the vinaigrette, and rawness of the onions. The "Conejo con huitlacoche y maíz" smoothed chocolatey-rich and creamy-soft sauce over tender pieces of braised rabbit, the sauce flecked with a handful of corn which added more to texture than taste. "Ceviche de salmón con maracuyá y epazote" mixed slivers of cooked salmon with passion fruit and epazote oil.* I'm certain there were other elements mixed into the ceviche - diced peppers maybe? - but I can't remember now, I'm afraid. The passionfruit provided a striking contrast to the sweet salmon meat. The "Nopalitos" was a cactus leaf salad tossed with tomatoes, cilantro, and finished with a prickly pear dressing. It was rather robust as a salad, and more subtley-flavored than I was expecting from ingredients poorly known to me.
Dessert... of course, there had to be dessert at a birthday party. At least half the table participated in ordering. My sister's cake arrived with a slender, irregular candle on it; the restaurant designeres paid attention to detail even in birthday candles. By this point in the meal, we had all been introduced to each other various numbers of times; the salsa folk largely congregated together, outnumbering the crowd of work friends. But still, enough people traded places and circulated than it was possible to stay still and talk to half the table.
There are not nearly enough dessert soups in the world, but Oyamel delighted me by having a superb one: "Sopa fría de Maracuyá con sorbete de yogurt y hoja Santa". A cold passionfruit soup contained a large dollop of smooth, mild yogurt sorbet, tiny pieces of cubed tropical fruits, finished with a pinch of diced "holy leaf", or Mexican pepperleaf, with the freshness of green and a spicy taste. Several people thought mine was the best dessert there, but I thought the "Cajeta tradicional y moderna" was at least as good. A cajeta is a pudding, and this one was made with goat's milk, and served with cinnamon, mango, and a sprinkling of crumbled shortbread. The pudding had all the complexity and mildness of a good goat's cheese, but in soft dessert form. The "Mole Poblano caliente de crema de chocolate con helado de vainilla" was a soft, warm chocolate cake, topped with spicy hot chocolate, a poblano mole sauce, and finished with a scoop of high-quality vanilla ice cream. Although decently good, the flavor set just wasn't as striking as the other two desserts. Equally, the mug of spiced hot chocolate I finished with was good - but I've had better.
Other notes: tacos are tiny and served in pairs - but truly wonderful, according to those who ate them. The restaurant offers a separate lunch menu and the website advertises brunch coming soon. Would I go back? Absolutely.
Location: 701 Ninth St. Washington D.C. Immediately opposite the Galleries exit of the Gallery Place Metro stop.
We had an hour to catch up on each others' lives before scheduling demanded that we go our separate ways. My sister and I met up with a long-time friend of the family and her curator colleague at Zaytinya, another of the Proximo restaurants. It was dense with the well-dressed after work crowd, exotic cocktails or martinis in hand, loitering around the bar. A carved pumpkin, seasonally appropriate, glowed with the restaurant's name and logo from a corner of the bar. The walls were decked out in cooler colors than Oyamel, washes of whites and blues.
Unable to resist fruit, I sipped at a tasty Orange-Blossom Apricot cocktail, and intriguing blend of apricot juice, orange blossom water, and a citrus-flavored vodka, finished with a rather less interesting dried apricot. We had just enough time to try a few small dishes but, inconveniently, I'd already killed my appetite on ice cream, the first two scoops of four in my day!** I dipped pieces of flatbread from the vase-like metal spiral they arrived in into oils and sauces. As proof that I am insufficiently devoted to the art of writing restaurant reviews, I must admit that I have no idea what dishes I sampled off of my table mates. Perhaps my sister will be able to tell me.
The mezze at Zaytinya are inspired by Middle Eastern cooking. They feature eggplant, lamb, pita, tomatoes, olives, lentils, yogurt, tahini, and pine nuts. Someday, I would love to go back and properly sample the menu. For now, I'll just have to recommend that all of you do it for me.
* Presumably the oil is made from the leaves of the plant as, apparently, the seeds are considered rather too poisonous for commercial sale these days. The seeds were once widely used as an effective medicine against bodily parasites.
** The first two scoops were from Baskin Robbins; the pineapple-coconut ice cream didn't really go that well with the mint chocolate chip, but I coveted scoops of both, so had it together anyways. The second two were tart and refreshing lemon sorbet from my sister's favorite ice cream place in Georgetown, an Argentinian gelateria, Isee Icy at 1560 Wisconsin Ave. By that point in the day, I was too full for anything heavier.