By Suzanne Struglinski - 09/22/11 10:56 PM EDT
Menu descriptions normally just explain how food is prepared, or a dish’s key ingredients. But at America Eats Tavern, diners get a history lesson while deciding which of the country’s classic dishes to try out.
And this is no easy decision. Behind this look back at some of America’s popular dishes is Washington’s own celebrity chef, Jose Andres. But how did the famed Spaniard learn so much about his adoptive homeland’s cuisine?
Andres, who won this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, wouldn’t just close his popular Café Atlantico without good reason (America Eats is in the old Atlantico space). He partnered with the National Archives to bring its exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” to the dining room.
The exhibit is named after the 1930s Works Progress Administration project that had writers document Americans’ relationship with food, and the “pop-up restaurant’s” menu features items ranging from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The restaurant is open only until January, and then it, too, will be history.
Until then, visitors can enjoy a wide-ranging collection of classic American food presented with Andres’s renowned flair for unique and playful interpretations. Only he can get away with a dessert called “Vermont Sugar on Snow,” a bowl of finely shaved ice, lightly infused with lemon and lime flavors and with warm maple syrup poured over it tableside. The hot syrup hardens on the ice, making a maple candy. Chunks of other maple bits and butter hide under the ice like hidden treasures. Even the server admits this is unlike anything seen before. It must be eaten quickly, though — otherwise it turns into a bowl of syrupy water.
Another success also comes in a bowl. The peanut soup, inspired by George Washington Carver, is smooth and velvety. At first glance, the dish looks like it would taste like a bowl of peanut butter, but Andres manages to keep the texture interesting, pairing the creamy brown broth with ground peanuts and a peanut paste. Somehow the peanut flavor is not overpowering and not at all sticky.
Peanut butter does make an appearance elsewhere on the menu, in the classic dish Helen Louise Johnson made famous in 1896. The “Sweet and Nut Sandwiches,” according to the menu, are best known by the peanut butter-and-jelly pairing. While the tried-and-true sandwich might not belong on a fine-dining menu, Andres gives diners the choice to go more gourmet with it by adding foie gras.
Two circle-cut sandwiches with no crust come warm with a small paper bag of potato chips and an adorable porcelain bottle of milk. Described by one diner as a “PB&J empanada,” it is not certain why these taste better than what grade schoolers across the country eat for lunch (most likely without foie gras), but they disappeared from the table fast.
Fried chicken and macaroni-and-cheese also show up on the menu — as they do at many trendy restaurants these days — but Andres puts his own touch on the two classics.
The menu teaches diners that fried chicken was first served in Gordonsville, Va., in 1869 after being introduced by Spanish and Portuguese slave-traders. Women sold the chicken to soldiers along the C&O railroad during the Civil War.
The restaurant’s interpretation didn’t come in the drumstick or wing forms that Americans have grown to love.
“It’s a chicken crab cake,” said one dining companion as four hockey-puck shapes arrived on a slate board lined with wax paper. The fried crust was a salty, well-seasoned and crunchy breading over both dark- and white-meat pieces. The tangy-sweet gooseberry catsup, one of eight different types on the menu, balanced out the crumbly crust.
The menu’s real crab cake, modeled after the first known recipe published in 1932 by a Baltimore hotel, was a welcome change from the Old Bay-covered, mayonnaise-soaked messes that have become common. Large pieces of lump crab come molded together with a light char on the outside but a tender, flaky center. A dusting of seasoning allows the crab flavor to take center stage. On the side, bright pink watermelon cubes topped with pickled watermelon rind and goat cheese add an updated element to a nearly 80-year-old recipe.
Meanwhile, the “Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding,” as created in Philadelphia in 1802, is described as the “grandfather of today’s mac’n’cheese.” This is not the yellow-orange pile of elbow macaroni, but a creamy, white, buttery entree of chopped thin noodles with sautéed mushrooms. The dish’s dominant flavor is butter, not cheese, making this diner thankful that the concoction has evolved over the years.
But the highlight at America Eats Tavern is the BBQ Beef Short Ribs with “Cold Slaw.” They come with both Texas-style and North Caroline-inspired flavorings. The coleslaw is an explosion of colors, made up of shredded carrots, Brussels sprouts, whole mustard seeds, radishes and a delicate dressing.
The ribs had a bright pink center under a char-grilled exterior, and their seasoning evoked the flavors of a backyard barbecue. The sauces added the heat.
This being a tavern, there are several option for taming such zest. In keeping with the theme, the punches, colonial cocktails and non-alcoholic options also have their own stories.
The Clover Club, described as a mixture of gin, raspberry, lime and egg white that a group of Philadelphia bluebloods who hung out at the Bellevue Hotel would drink, makes no mention of Kool-Aid. But that is how easily it can go down. The light berry flavor lends a sweet taste, and the lime adds a tart finish.
From the historical descriptions on the menu to the copper mugs and mason jars that serve as glasses and the black-and-white framed photos plastered on the walls, Andres and his team paid close attention to the detail and flavors that could put America Eats into the history books itself.