Cooking the Books: Choking Down History At José Andrés’ America Eats Tavern
In the rarified world of restaurant criticism, it was once customary to wait a few months after a restaurant’s opening before reviewing the place—long enough to let staffers work out the kinks that critics will inevitably savage. By most rights, a heralded chef like José Andrés would be offered such a courtesy even today, in an age of blogs and Yelp and other venues for immediate feedback.
Alas, Andrés’ latest venture, America Eats Tavern, would be most of the way through its run before it got any attention from a critic from the old school: The pop-up restaurant is being operated in conjunction with a National Archives exhibition on U.S. culinary history. Instead of becoming a local fixture along the lines of Andrés’ Jaleo or Zaytinya, America Eats is currently slated to last only as long as the exhibition.
Which means I had little time to waste in ordering myself a $14 peanut butter and jelly sandwich. With foie gras, of course.
This precious little piece of Americana is a prime example of how Andrés’ temporary eatery, located in the former Café Atlántico space in Penn Quarter and featuring a menu culled from archival cookbooks, simultaneously delights, enlightens, and perplexes.
The sandwich is wistful! The artisanal peanut butter and blackberry jam, which ooze from inside, harken back to the days before Skippy and Smuckers dominated the sandwich-spread scene. And the bread, meanwhile, buttered and toasted to tasty effect, is sealed along the edges, recalling the childish practice of having the crusts cut off.
The sandwich is whimsical! For an added touch of nostalgia, the PB&J arrives with a small container of milk and a straw for easy sipping.
And the sandwich is wildly astronomical! You could buy an entire loaf of bread, a sizeable can of Jif, and a whole jar of jelly for the cost of one of Andres’ creations—and the resulting homemade sandwiches would at least be big enough to trade for something good on the elementary school playground.
True, Andrés’ version might not be the most expensive PB&J, and fattened goose liver in U.S. history: A New York restaurateur once charged $21 for a similar foie gras and nut butter sandwich. But, in this age of austerity, the kitchy aggrandizing of a third-graders’ lunch seems tone-deaf—even if it is quite tasty. Thankfully, more cost-conscious culinary history buffs can order a down-market version, sans the foie gras, for $10.
Like many entrees at the new eatery, the gussied-up PB&J is intended as a celebration of American culinary innovation. As you learn from scanning the menu, the first known recipe appeared in 1896, when Helen Louise Johnson, memorialized as an “enterprising housekeeper,” dished up her formula for “Sweet and Nut Sandwiches.”
And, like so many American success stories, the sandwich’s humble origins were quickly directed toward corporate profit: Johnson’s recipe, the menu further explains, was published by the manufacturers of a hand-crank nut grinder hoping to cash in on her creativity.
Further menu scanning reveals that corporate sponsorship is by no means confined to the past. As disclosed in a footnote—yes, pupils, your menu has footnotes—America Eats is itself made possible via the financial contributions of the Dole Foods Company.
Flush with sponsor cash and fresh off his James Beard Award for outstanding chef, Andrés announced the America Eats concept in mid-May, vowing to demonstrate that “this country is more than hot dogs and burgers.” Based on Andrés’ menu, it’s also fried chicken and eight styles of watery ketchups, ranging in flavor from anchovy to mushroom.
The charismatic cook headed into the project with a wave of momentum and some fancy new headgear to boot. The dapper newsboy cap now seemingly cemented to his scalp as he parades around the restaurant and promotes the place across televisions nationwide—“I got this in New York,” the proud chef told me at a post-award cocktail reception—turns out to be an apt choice. Once fashionable around the turn of the 20th century, the hat has regained popularity in hipster circles in recent years, kind of like what the chef is now attempting to do with the America Eats menu.
In some cases, the hat is probably an easier sell.
Staffers from Andrés’ Think Food Group spent weeks at the Library of Congress combing antique texts for recipes. They discovered some interesting things: the Hangtown fry, for instance, was named for a rough-and-tumble California gold-mining town in the 1840s, when eating fried oysters mixed with scrambled eggs and bacon connoted status and wealth. Decadent back in the day, the dish as presented here seems better suited for Denny’s. It tastes fishy and seems like a waste of seafood that would be better served on the half shell, or grilled with butter (both of which, in fact, America Eats does pretty well).
One of the most obscure menu listings, the Kentucky-style burgoo, has proven so tricky to recreate that the restaurant has yet to actually serve it. Ask about this rustic stew, however, and you get a good sense of just how educated the staff has become in a very short amount of time. (The conversion from Atlántico, with its garish orange walls, into the minimalist stark white, almost museum-like motif of America Eats, took less than a month.) One manager related to me how incorporating the stew’s traditional elements of squirrel and blackbird would be illegal under current hunting laws. Andrés plans to use rabbit, squab, and lamb instead.
The overall menu seems ambitious for an impermanent concept. The sheer breadth of the offerings only heightens speculation that this supposed pop-up could pop-up again after its planned six-month run. There are 40 different items on the dinner menu, plus additional offerings downstairs in the bar; they generally skew heavily toward seafood, to the virtual exclusion of pork. Oysters, for one thing, are prepared seven different ways.
Navigating the sprawling list can be frustrating, even for those inclined to be charitable toward a new venue. Some items were simply unavailable; others were said to be only available on certain days.
The mishmash of genres, eras and places of origin, meanwhile, provides for some interesting order combinations: Pickled oysters and buffalo wings, anyone?
The wings actually turn out to be among the more enjoyable things on the menu. Served boneless, the saucy meat is topped with a tiny dab of blue cheese hidden under a pile of pickled celery.
In fact, diners will find a plethora of pickled items on various plates, from sweetly preserved watermelon bits accompanying the crab cakes to the pickled peppers served alongside the jambalaya.
That jambalaya seems to be an Andrés favorite: Of all the entrees he talked up before the restaurant’s hugely ballyhooed July 4 opening, Andrés spoke most proudly of the his take on the Creole standby. Vowing to uphold the integrity of the “holy trinity” ingredients of onion, celery and pepper, Andrés also pledged to pay strict attention to the rice, specifically sourcing one of the original varieties first planted in South Carolina.
I’d have liked for him to pay more attention to the spice. As the server opened the steaming pot and plated the stuff tableside, unleashing the dish’s savory aroma, I could barely wait to taste Andrés’ hearty arrangement of crawfish, shrimp, sausage, and chicken. Then I took a bite and was under-whelmed by its mild flavor.
My dining companion and I were not the only ones steaming about the lack of heat. During a return visit, a nearby patron was similarly taken aback by its blandness. “I wanted to be slapped in the face,” she told me, “you know, in a good way.”
Thankfully, the jambalaya, priced at $36, comes with a dish of Cajun spices—kind of like the bottle of hot sauce you get at the nearest Chipotle, albeit at a different price point.
Another disappointment: the deconstructed clam chowder, priced at $28. The dish arrived beautifully arranged, with a chunk of cod, cubes of potato, bits of bacon, and three juicy clams. A server sauced the dish tableside, adding its creamy broth. It’s a wonderful array of flavors—but they never really get a chance to mix, which makes the dish rather boring.
Rather than play it safe by sending up these predictable staples, I’d have much rather seen Andrés devote his well-documented genius to riffing on some of the more bizarre elements of American food history. The National Archives’ accompanying exhibition, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?,” offers some intriguing possibilities: I mean, just imagine what the guy who pioneered the dragon’s breath popcorn might do with the concept of the “vitamin donut.”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
America Eats, 405 8th St. NW, (202) 393-0812
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