Thursday, September 15, 2011

America Eats Tavern

We've had a run of tough restaurant visits lately. Leave it to Chef Jose Andres to be the breath of fresh air (and excellent food and service) we needed. We're fans of his restaurants and every time we see him on TV we stop what we're doing and watch. Did you see the No Reservations episode when he and Bourdain visited El Bulli for the last time? It was magical. I could listen to Chef Andres talk about food all day long.

At America Eats Tavern, Chef Andres' latest venture, you can see his famous passion and curiosity on every plate. Teaming up with the Foundation for the National Archives, Chef Andres closed his popular Cafe Atlantico and reimagined the space as America Eats. During the six month run of the National Archives' companion exhibit "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?", Chef Andres is donating the profits from America Eats to the Foundation for the National Archives.

Prior to our culinary adventure, we stopped in the National Archives to check out the "What's Cooking" exhibit and were fascinated by the display of artifacts and records tracing the "Government's effect on what Americans eat."

At nearby America Eats Tavern, Chef Andres has developed a menu of new takes on American classics. He celebrates traditional American ingredients and "some long forgotten dishes, from burgoo to oysters Rockefeller." Having had a fantastic meal with B's parents at Chef Andres' Bazaar in LA, we were excited to take them to America Eats.

If you visited the former Cafe Atlantico, you'll be interested to see how Chef Andres and his team reimagined the space. We loved checking out the classic American photos and food posters that hung from the ceiling and graced the walls.

Bring your reading glasses along for the ride at America Eats because the menu has detailed descriptions of every dish including a historical note about the origin. There is a lot to take in. Luckily, our waiter was uber-informative and walked us through the concept well. He explained that the menu is divided into four parts and designed so that diners select one dish from each part: oysters, to follow, soup & salad, meat & fish. It seemed like a lot of food for one person to eat, but we were so excited to try so many of the dishes so we went for it. There are certain dishes that are only available on certain nights of the week, so check the menu or call ahead if you want to be sure your favorite is being served.

I started with the grilled butter oysters. These babies would put a smile on the face of even the most diehard oyster hater. Buttery, smooth, and not at all fishy.

B started with the Hangtown Fry, a salty, creamy combo of oysters, eggs, and bacon. It was hard to steal a bite of this one, as B did not want to let it go! B's mom also had the Hangtown Fry and declared it her favorite dish of the night for its presentation, taste and texture. Off to a fantastic start!

Next up for me was the "vermicelli prepared like pudding," which is described as the "grandfather of today's mac 'n' cheese." If you like noodles and cheese like I do, this is your dish. No crazy flavors or molecular magic, just really good noodles lovingly doused in a really good creamy cheese sauce. The mushrooms placed around the plate gave a fun texture and flavor contrast to the cheesy wonderfulness. I could eat way too much of this stuff.

B's next course was the shrimp 'n' Anson Mills grits. Perhaps B was actually meant to be a Southerner because he loves shrimp 'n' grits. This dish was no exception.

For my salad course I took the waiter's recommendation and tried Chef Andres' twist on the classic Waldorf. While I wasn't wowed by the salad, I do have to give Chef credit for creativity. He took apples, peeled and balled them so they looked like melon balls, yet infused them with celery juice so they tasted like celery. He left a little bit of apple skin on the bottom of each ball so you don't forget you're eating an apple. Completely unexpected and points for creativity.

B opted for the gazpacho which was a refreshing party of flavors on every spoonful. Apparently this recipe was one of President Clinton's White House favorites. Though the (newly vegan) Prez got a bad rap for his old junk food habit, he knows what he's talking about with gazpacho.

For my meat course, I chose something off the appetizer menu because I just can't turn down fried chicken. I think I have a serious fried chicken problem. Chef Andres' interpretation was fun (boneless "nuggets" of juicy chicken), but not life changing. I was too full at this point to really enjoy it to its fullest. I did like the tangy blackberry catsup that it was paired with. If you're a catsup (or ketchup) fan, the menu features eight types of catsups from gooseberry to Jack Daniel's. Who knew that there are dozens of historical catsup recipes?

B's main event was the BBQ beef short ribs with "cold slaw." The meat is prepared in a combo of Texas and North Carolina BBQ spices, and the cole slaw is a recipe brought over by Dutch settlers. A mishmash of traditions that equals one fantastic plate.

I love dining with B's mom because we always have room for dessert. While B and his dad shook their heads at us, we ordered the strawberry shortcake, which was a gorgeous and light way to end the experience. The dish featured strawberries in many forms (slices, sauce, sorbet) and the shortcake was buttery without being heavy.

I'm full just looking at these pictures. I definitely think that you end up with too much food if you follow the recommendation and choose one from each course. I would've been much better off choosing only two dishes.

Despite a couple of service miscues (lots of reaching across the table and a forgotten dish), we had a fabulous journey through America's culinary history as interpreted by the whimsical Chef Jose Andres. I can almost guarantee that we'll be back before the end of America Eats' run to try his version of one of my favorite American dishes, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I think I'll skip the optional foie gras topping so that just leaves more for you to enjoy!

Second Thoughts from B

After our recent run of sub par experiences, I was beginning to feel like J and I were turning into Statler and Waldorf, the two crotchety old men in the Muppet Show...

Jose Andres has risen to culinary god in our minds. You know that hypothetical game you play that asks, "If you could have dinner with any 4 people, who would they be?" Chef Andres might not have secured an invite quite yet, but he's in the conversation for both of us.

The downside to this is that we have begun to expect that every single bite will be life changing for us. Of course that is impossible, but the man still manages to surprise and inspire more often than not.

By the end of the night, we could all agree that 4 dishes was too many. Maybe that's part of the American culinary story of gluttony, but I doubt it. My only other critique would be that the dishes tended to be slightly heavy on the salt. Again, this could be another sad commentary on American food culture.

But just to prove I'm no Waldorf, let me end on a few high notes. I loved the history book of a menu. Sure, I may be the nerd that loved history and loves museums, but having a mini story attached to everything we were eating was a real treat and nothing I've ever seen before. I'd recommend asking to keep a menu for review during the meal so you can remind yourself of the origins of each dish.

I also love how thoughtfully composed each dish was. Everything on the plate has a purpose; flavor, texture, color, humor. Jose Andres is a thinking man's chef. He makes you want to know more about food because of the tremendous depth and artistry in front of you. What I'm saying is that he makes the ordinary inspiring.

The America Eats experience is one that is completely unique, completely DC, and completely Jose Andres. I would encourage everyone to take advantage of it while it is still here. Was it my favorite Jose Andres meal of all time? No, but consider the competition. After all, being runner up at the Miss America pageant isn't exactly a criticism, is it?
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