Friday, March 23, 2012

He Said, She Said: A Review of Oyamel and Arena Stage's "Ah, Wilderness"

Last week, Matt* and I went to dinner at Oyamel and to the play "Ah, Wilderness" at Arena Stage. We thought it would be fun to each write a review about the night. Sort of a "he said, she said" thing. And that's exactly what we did.

Dinner at Oyamel

What She Said:

Our biggest challenge was finding a restaurant. You may recall that the last time I reviewed Arena Stage, my date and I went to Station 4 for dinner. Given that it's really the only decent restaurant near Arena Stage (yes, Cantina Marina is across the street and although I love me a good margarita while looking out across the Potomac, the food pretty much blows) our options were limited. So, we started thinking about other places to check out along the way. We eventually settled on Jose Andres' Oyamel in Chinatown.

And as luck would have it, we arrived only to discover that Oyamel was offering FREE tequila tastings. Tequila shots at 6pm? Sounded like a brilliant idea to us. We sampled three tequilas from Casa Noble. Let me tell you- this tequila was no joke. It was goood. Smooth. And the crowd at the bar was friendly and lively. All in all it was a pretty good happy hour. Oh, and my margarita (that was $5 for happy hour) was delicious. Although a bit heavy on the ice.

Because the weather was so unbelievably gorgeous, we decided to eat outside. Have I mentioned how much I love global warming? I was surprised by how small the patio was though--- only about six tables--- but it was nice to sit outside as the temperature dropped a bit.

Only issue? When we walked into the restaurant the sun was out and shining. By the time we sat down for dinner, rain clouds were forming to the west and the hostess simply said, "just to let you know, if it rains, we cannot guarantee you seating inside." Um, something we would have loved to hear before we waited a half hour for our "al fresco" table. Fortunately, other than the sky spitting for about two minutes, we avoided the rain.

I've been to Oyamel once before, but it was with a large group, after a long, extended happy hour, so all I remember ordering is the guacamole and tacos. And pitcher upon pitcher of margaritas.

This time we were a little more thoughtful in our food selection. Oyamel features a fairly extensive tapas menu. Our server offered some great recommendations from each of the different menu areas--- fish, meat, vegetables, etc.
We decided on the red snapper ceviche, grilled cactus paddles, crispy brussels sprouts, grilled skirt steak, and a lamb special the chef was featuring. I really enjoyed everything. I wish I could tell you that I had a favorite dish, but I have to say that the ceviche, the steak, and the brussels spouts all tied. The ceviche had great flavor with the avacado salsa, the bits of cilantro and lime juice. I would have preferred the steak a little more on the medium rare side but it still had great, fresh flavors and was tender. And the brussels sprouts...oh the brussels sprouts...they were cooked to perfection.

After doing tequila shots, fully stuffing our faces, and drinking throughout dinner, we opted to skip dessert...and caught a cab to Arena Stage.

What He Said:

We tried making small talk with other revelers and the distiller. We tried being classy as we drank our free tasting-alcohol out of champagne flutes. We tried being responsible.

But then again. Can you really be responsible drinking tequila?

So, as Kate and I stepped through the tequila flight, pretending to really care about how each batch was carefully distilled, I silently wondered about the metaphor of free tequila this early in the night? Were we so lucky to conveniently come to Oyamel for a tequila event night or was this a harbinger for tequila-induced bad decisions?

(Kate and I have had tequila together twice before. (1) Warm rail tequila from a lost NFL bet (Bills beat her Pats) and (2), well, here's the tweet:

After just one tequila flight, a happy hour drink, and some small talk, we were shown to an outdoor table. For being in the heart of DC and just a few blocks from the Gallery Place-China Town metro, I expected the outdoor seating to be accompanied by loud cars, exhaust, and noise. But surprisingly, the distractions were to a minimum and we could enjoy the outdoor weather and ambiance.

Oyamel focuses on antojitos - Mexican small plates. Smaller plates mean an opportunity to try much more of the menu. However, for those that struggle with indecision, trying to find 5-6 antojitos that (A) neither of you are allergic to, (B) look appetizing, (C) aren't at the top of the price range, and (D) easily pronounceable to the waiter (the titles are all in Spanish), can seem daunting. But whether it's date night, happy hour, or a normal night, the mood is relaxed and ordering off the menu really isn't that bad.

Kate and I settled on:

· Ceviche de huachinango (Red snapper ceviche)
· Nopal asado con salsa molcajete (Grilled fresh cactus paddles)
· Col de bruselas estilo San Quintin (Crispy brussel sprouts)
· Arrahera con salsa molcajete (Grilled skirt steak)
· Off the specials menu - grilled lamb with fava beans (or chick peas)

Grilled Cactus
Skirt Steak
As a whole, I was happy with our meal. The fresh chips and salsa were addicting and I made failed effort after failed effort to stop eating them. 

The ceviche was a little too spicy which overpowered the other flavors. But the skirt steak, grilled lamb, and crispy brussel sprouts were very good. The grilled cactus, topped with a warm, slightly sweet salsa, was milder than the ceviche which helped calm the spicier dish. Both meat dishes were very good and I'd order them again.

"Ah, Wilderness" at Arena Stage:

What She Said:
For those of you unfamiliar with Arena Stage, it's located on the Southwest Waterfront.  It was remodeled in 2010 and both the exterior and interior are stunning.

Fichandler Theatre in Arena Stage
The play, "Ah, Wilderness!" written by Eugene O'Neill and directed by Kyle Donnelly, takes place in Connecticut on July 4, 1906. I really liked the venue for the play--- in the Fichandler Threatre--- an amphitheatre. The play itself appears light and airy, with the youngest character around the age of 10 running around with sparklers and jokes throughout. There is laughter and singing, and typical family bickering, but there are also some pretty serious themes--- alcoholism, class division, prostitution. All of these more serious undertones are lightened by the laughter and jokes. Even as one character is so drunk he can barely sit up at the table, there is humor. So, it was easy to watch and enjoy.

My only real issue with the play was the length. Three hours is a long time to sit and watch a play, and while there were two intermissions, which were nice, it was a long time to sit, and the play was not engaging enough to keep me captivated. However, the length of the play was made up with the acting. The acting was superb. Which is not surprising, as I've never been to Arena Stage and experienced anything but top notch acting. I also really liked the set design. Which is another thing that Arena Stage always nails.

Would I recommend this play to someone? Yes, absolutely. But I would prepare him or her for the length and advise that doing tequila shots beforehand is probably not the best activity. Also, some the jokes seemed lost among my date and me…whereas older members of the audience found them to be hysterical. So, it may be a generational thing.

Overall, a great night. Good food, good entertainment, and, as always, good company.

What He Said:

The next stop of the night was Arena Stage to see the play Ah, Wilderness! (though an ellipses may have been more suitable - "Ah, Wilderness...") And while I didn't expect the show to have the caliber of a Kennedy Center or Broadway show production, the play was too long, and I felt it was lacking overall.

The first act (of three...) was too busy --- conversation quickly darting between actors like a rubber ball being thrown in an elevator. The audience wasn't gradually drawn into the story, but rather attacked with short staccato notes of prose. Too chaotic and about three actors too many on stage at any given point.

The second and third acts proved much stronger. Both acts feature more focused dialog that allow the audience to become more attached to the story. The characters start to take shape and the audience begins to recognize the nuances of each family member and the subtleties of this 1933 comedy.

It was interesting to observe the crowd as the play progressed (a stark and noticeable even split between 60+ and 20/30 somethings). As the 60+ crowd roared to life following another early 20th century English literary reference, I found myself trying to desperately grasp for the "in".

While the final two acts tried to rescue the first, I wouldn't see the play again. Which is surprising since the play is somewhat of a coming of age story with undercurrents of love and family mixed in with prostitution, drinking, and making fun of Yale. So while, these underlying themes are still current today, I found myself wanting something that falls in between the 1930s comedic style of Ah, Wilderness!'s playwright and the collegiate humor of the flute-touting American Pie.


I'm never one to turn down a unique adventure or something different, especially if it’s with good company. So, while I wouldn’t go see that particular play again, tequila-tasting, antojitos, red dresses, and the Arena Stage are still in the mix.

(Ironically, the most intriguing portion of the Arena Stage visit came during our first intermission. As Kate and I wandered around the interior of the Arena Stage, we came across 8-12 bright red costume dresses, proudly on display for a different play. As we slowly passed each dress, I was asked to guess which one she would choose. While carefully trying to navigate between not-too-slutty, not-too-conservative, and not-too-Tinker-Bell, I found a single shoulder dress that hopefully, upon revealing my selection, wouldn't earn me a punch to the shoulder.)

* Matt is the creator of You can follow him on twitter at @3rdDateCooking

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