We spent President’s Day at the National Portrait Gallery where paintings of our 44 presidents are on display. Each president is recognized: revered figures like Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy; least effective presidents like James Buchanan, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Franklin Pierce; presidents who survived impeachment, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton; and Richard Nixon, the only president forced to resign.
Occupying the highest office in our land doesn’t automatically confer upon the individual respectability or nobility, or guarantee that he or she will be remembered favorably by succeeding generations. Leaders may come forward from unexpected places and have a profound effect not only helping those in need, but inspiring others to step up, too. That thought was very much on our minds as we later dined at Oyamel Cocina Mexicano, one of several area restaurants owned and operated by Chef José Andrés.
Andrés first made national headlines when he pulled out of plans to open a restaurant in Donald Trump’s D.C. hotel after the then nominee made racist comments about immigrants. A lawsuit was later settled and the details never revealed publicly. Since that time, Andrés has become a force, traveling to areas devastated by natural disasters to feed those being affected. He was on the front lines during the Camp Fire in California. His World Central Kitchen was there to feed people after the Fuego volcano erupted in Guatemala. And he led a huge relief effort in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. When the federal government shutdown left 800,000 without paychecks, WCK opened a kitchen on Pennsylvania Avenue to make thousands of hot meals available to federal workers and their families. In addition, several of his restaurants served free sandwiches between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. each day. No surprise that Andrés has been nominated for the 2019 Noble Peace Prize.
I have dined at and written reviews for other restaurants in Andrés’ ThinkFoodGroup, including Zaytinya and Jaleo, both near the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve also dined at Jaleo in Las Vegas’ Cosmopolitan Hotel. This was my first visit to Oyamel and, rather than a review, this report is meant to reflect on the ambiance at the restaurant, especially what is conveyed by the staff. I think we can tell a lot about the person at the top of an organization by observing and talking to those who work for them.
Andrés sets high standards for his workers, something that is evident in how well the servers in his restaurants interact with guests. They are welcoming without being intrusive, efficient without being brusk. They are well informed about the menu, including dishes, specials, wines, and spirits. They ask about dietary restrictions and are ready to make suggestions. And they check back frequently to make sure that guests are enjoying what they ordered.
Our server at Oyamel was a standout. Grace made several recommendations we would never have chosen. A cactus salad? It was unusual and delicious. Besides pointing out what we might enjoy, she was quick to talk about the history of several Mexican dishes and wines that contributed to our appreciation of what was served.
Grace humorously talked about the competition between the various Andrés restaurants which include some athletic events. Oyamel apparently won one of these last contests which means the restaurant is in possession of a coveted trophy. Is that why Andrés himself often stops in to sit at the bar? Grace’s admiration for her boss was evident. She talked about how the restaurant was ready to serve sandwiches if another federal shutdown occurred. And she noted that the sandwiches weren’t small ones, but substantial ones that made a meal.
When choosing where to dine, food and service are important. Andrés’ restaurants, which consistently make the “best places to dine” lists in our nation’s capital, certainly meet that requirement. When we also feel that we are favoring a restaurant whose owner inspires his workers and gives back to the world community, that’s the icing on the cake. And maybe a Nobel Peace Prize in the future.
Top photo: Bigstock
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