Like any drink geek, I love a complex, innovative cocktail, yet lately I’ve been craving the basics, the classic drinks that involve a few simple ingredients mixed in perfect balance. In fact, I’ve renamed this past summer my Gin & Tonic Season. But in the midst of that back-to-basics obsession, I stopped by Oyamel Cocina Mexicana, the Mexican jewel in Chef José Andrés culinary crown, located in Washington, D.C. Andrés is known for taking traditional dishes and re-conceiving them with contemporary twists that allow the classic elements to shine in a new way. But could he do the same with drinks?
Once seated in the bustling dining room, our group waited for a round of Oyamel Margaritas. I’d read quite a bit about this particular libation, said to be Andrés’ personal favorite, which is lauded for its salt and lime “air.” The light, frothy topping was more inviting than the traditional salt rim, all in our party agreed.
“The point of these touches, like the air, is to create something that enhances the cocktail and doesn’t take away from it,” explains Steve Fowler, GM at Oyamel, who drives the beverage program along with Jill Zimorski, beverage director for ThinkFoodGroup — including Oyamel and Andrés’ other restaurants — and the chefs and bartenders. “Quite often, the salt on the rim overpowers the flavor of the cocktail. The air gives you the hint of salt and lime.” One sip of the cocktail made with Siembra Azul Blanco, Luxardo Triplum and fresh lime juice confirmed Fowler’s assessment and sealed its fate as one of the best Margaritas I’ve ever tasted.
So how difficult is this “air” to produce? Is it a complex molecular mixology masterpiece? “It’s easy!” laughs Fowler. “We add lime juice and water and salt to taste, then add [soy lecithin] and froth it with an immersion blender, and it becomes the air. A simple technique that adds a great touch.”
Music to my ears, but would that simple yet unique approach work with other cocktails? Two new drinks graced the menu: the first being the China Paloma, a play on the classic grapefruit soda and tequila concoction but with the addition of lavender. “We bring in a lavender-mint-lemon herbal tea, steep it for 12 hours with the grapefruit syrup, add soda water for the gas and the El Jimador Reposado,” Fowler explains.
The verdict? A delicious upgrade on the classic; it remained true to its roots but introduced a new level of complexity. Steeping time aside, it’s not a difficult drink to build, so the simplicity remained all around.
Next, we sampled the Mexican Smash, a spin on the classic Whiskey Smash. Siembra Azul Blanco replaces the bourbon, agave syrup stands in for simple syrup and a Mexican herb called hoja santa takes the place of the mint. The lime juice — an ingredient taken so seriously at Oyamel that a juicer is employed full time — takes the place of lemon. The drink is finished with a unique garnish.
“The roasted agave heart that garnishes each glass mimics the sugar cane stick of the Mojito,” Fowler notes. Actually, the drink is more like a Mojito than a Smash; the lime, agave nectar and hoja santa are muddled, then the tequila and some lemon/lime soda top it off. The result is a complex quaff — the tequila is lightly herbal and the hoja santa delivers a slightly sassafras flavor. Although there is a lot going on in that glass — maybe too much for my back-to-basics leaning palate — our group gave it the thumbs up.
The keep-it-streamlined mentality also extends to the tequila selection at Oyamel. The restaurant is the first in D.C. and one of only 15 or so in the country to receive the Agave De Oro, the highest certification from the Tequila Regulatory Council of Mexico. Twenty-seven tequila brands grace the backbar, and the menued cocktails feature El Jimador and Siembra Azul, which is only available in a few markets. “It’s important to only use quality, 100 percent blue agave tequilas because we build drinks in which the tequila shines,” Fowler explains. Thanks to careful selection of other ingredients and respect for the original recipes, they shine brightly, indeed. NCB