Archive for August 16th, 2011

Eat This: America Eats Tavern

Typically I use the Eat This segments of this blog to talk about my own cooking exploits, but today it’s about eating exploits.  This weekend, as a belated second anniversary dinner, my wife and I had the opportunity to try the America Eats Tavern, the latest DC offering by our favorite restauranteur Jose Andres (yes, I’ve reached a point in life where I have a favorite restauranteur, and I’m actually okay with that).  His is the mind behind Jaleo, Oyamel, and Cafe Atlantico, the latter of which has gone away in favor of America Eats.  This means I’ve now sampled all his DC restaurants except Zaytinya and the ultra hard to get into Minibar (one day…one day).

America Eats is meant to be a companion restaurant to a display currently at the National Archives about the history of food and the United States Government, and its menu features a combination of American classics does the Andres way, and old recipes that have disappeared.  The highlight of the latter is the catsup menu that we did not have an opportunity to try, but features older versions of the modern sweet-and-sour sauce, including a thinner tomato version and a blackberry catsup that I would love to find the recipe for.  It’s also unusual for an Andres restaurant as it’s not built around small plates, though I have heard tell tales of people who treat the appetizer menu like a typical Andres menu.  Instead it’s built around five courses: Oysters, Appetizers, Soups and Salads, Entrees, and Desserts.

Neither my wife or I has ever developed a taste of Oysters, so we skipped straight to the appetizers.  I can’t pass up hush puppies, though I was tempted by the presence of a PB&J on the menu.  My wife had a vermicelli pudding described as the “grandfather” of modern mac and cheese.  Jaleo has proven Andres knows his way around a fritter, and the hush puppies reinforce that.  They were much lighter than a typical hush puppy, and had a fantastic corn flavor with whole kernels visible in each bite.  If I could have changed one thing, I would have liked a little honey in the butter, but unquestionably the best hush puppies I’ve had.  My wife’s vermicelli pudding was a light mac and cheese, but with angel hair pasta and Parmesan cheese, and a fantastic crust.  Really, the phrase “fantastic crust” is going to come up a lot in this review.  The kitchen was quite adept in making things crunch that other restaurants forget should crunch.

Next course.  I got a watermelon salad with crab cake.  The crab cake again had that nice crust, just a slight char to the bottom that seals in all the flavor.  Unfortunately the sauce served with it was a touch salty for my taste.  The salad, however, was the star of the plate, and I almost wish I’d gotten twice as much of that instead of the crab cake.  The salad combined four cubes of sweet in-season watermelon, pickled rind, microgreens, and goat cheese.  Followers of this blog and the Eat This segments already know my opinion of goat cheese.  My wife had a peanut soup, a thinner version based on an old recipe.  She enjoyed it, but in her words wasn’t surprised the recipe had gone out of favor.

On to the entrees.  We passed up a two-person steak called the buffalo tomahawk, but saw several, and if you want some steak absolutely get it and split it.  It’s a full pound of buffalo that starts purple when it goes onto the grill and gets served with a giant bone handle, thus the name.  Instead my wife got the short ribs and I got the Lobster Newberg.  It’s hard to really heap additional praise on lobster.  It is, afterall, lobster.  It was served with an interesting side, almost a large crouton with chopped lobster meat in the middle and a poached quail egg on top.  The short ribs, again, perfect crust.  There was a crunchy char on the outside, with the meat inside as tender a piece of beef as I’ve tasted.

Then…dessert.  Two weeks ago, closer to our actual anniversary, we went to Jaleo in Crystal City (have I mentioned we love the Andres restaurants?).  When the waitress there heard we had reservations for America Eats she insisted we had to try the cheesecake.  That’s one of my go to desserts on a menu anyway, so I went into the dinner already knowing that’s what I would get.  It was entirely unlike a cheesecake I’ve had before.  The filling was the texture of whipped cream, the crust was like a graham cracker crumble, and the whole was garnished with raspberries.  It was an absolute dream.  My wife got a Vermont dessert called “sugar on snow” which, in its simplest form, is maple syrup served over snow or crushed ice.  In Jose Andres’s head, it’s that but also with maple candy, brown sugar cane, and other little fruity and sweet surprises hiding under the small mounds of shaved ice.

I can’t overlook the drinks menu, which has seen just as much thought go into it as the food.  I had a classic cocktail called a Milk Punch, made with citrus juices and brandy.  My wife had a Moscow Mule served in a proper copper cup.  But perhaps more interesting were the non-alcoholic drinks.  Several classic sodas, including Cheerwine and Moxie, are available.  There are a selection of classic soda fountain drinks.  My wife picked a Dublin Dr. Pepper from the former, I picked a lactart from the latter.  Dublin, for those who don’t know, is the last Dr. Pepper bottling plant using the original recipe.  It’s like what you remember Dr. Pepper tasting like as a child, when the flavor was new and everything seemed more intense.  The lactart was a lactic acid soured drink with a fruity flavor and good two inch head of foam.  I have an uncanny ability to find the pinkest, frothiest drink on any menu, alcoholic or not.

We spent the evening seated at what would be, for my money, the be the best table in the house.  The entire restaurant is built in what feels like an old row house, so it’s a very vertical space with lots of half floors.  The kitchen is on the second floor, and there are two dining rooms each a half floor up before Minibar at the very top.  We were on the half floor above the kitchen, right on the railing, so we had an eagle eye view of everything being cooked, as well as a view of every bit of food going one more flight up the stairs.  Even had a server stop and show us what he was carrying up when I looked clearly interested in the fizzing glass on his tray.  Very well done on his part.

I’m gushing, I know.  In the end, the meal and the atmosphere give me no reasons not to gush.  It was the big things, and even the little touches, like checks delivered as bookmarks in classic volumes rather than the traditional leather bifolds.  By my understanding it’s a short-term space, keyed around the Archives exhibit.  So if you get the chance, please go.  Reservations are tough, we got ours a month in advance and even then had to settle for 5:45pm on a Sunday, but they’re certainly not Minibar tough.

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