With Oyamel (2250B Crystal Dr., Arlington, Va.; 703/413-2288; www.oyamel.com; dinner for two $60), Andrés's newest place, he steers the small-plate concept south to Mexico and abandons the neighborhood that has served him so well. The chef got a great deal on an unlikely space, which explains why his wonderful new restaurant anchors a Virginia strip mall in the office-park gullies of Crystal City. Vibrant, authentic flavors Andrés researched in Mexico are interpreted with his characteristic whimsy, like a dried fruit–stuffed quail in rose-petal sauce that's a fragrant homage to Like Water for Chocolate. Other great nibbles include compulsive mole-doused french fries, cheesy rice with huitlacoche—the corn fungus more gently described as "black mushrooms"—and tequila-drenched queso fundido with made-to-order tortillas.
It was only a matter of time before Thomas Keller's influence made its way to D.C. Lately the French Laundry chef's protégés have been shaking things up from New York to Boulder and points in between. Eric Ziebold, at the unfortunately named CityZen (1330 Maryland Ave. SW; 202/787-6006; www.mandarinoriental.com; dinner for two $150), in Washington's sparkling Mandarin Oriental, did his time with Keller in Napa before landing his very own kitchen. Not since Gray Kunz brought Lespinasse (now closed) to D.C. was a restaurant opening so hotly anticipated. CityZen has all the physical trappings of an instant sensation—an ambitious wine list, a dark and sultry dining room, a gleaming open kitchen. But the food falls short of living up to the space (and the hype). Ziebold's technical skills are indisputable; unfortunately, his dishes lack the personality you'd expect from such a pedigreed chef—focusing not on innovation but on clichéd luxury crowd-pleasers. The black truffles that show up everywhere—on beet salad, on duck breast with foie gras, under the skin of a very rustic pork sausage—seem to be tossed on more for effect than for flavor. While Ziebold's food tastes perfectly good, the most inspiring course is one he didn't cook—the restaurant's fine cart of melting international cheeses.
Jay Cheshes has written for Radar, Gourmet, and Departures.