America eats nicely in Penn Quarter
Jose Andres delivers a rich history lesson
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011
It was only a matter of time before Jose Andres started serving chicken potpie.
Having delivered his native Spain with Jaleo and tackled Greece, Mexico and parts of Latin America and China with his other restaurants in Washington and elsewhere, the restless celebrity chef is now devoting his attention to the United States of America with his latest venture, America Eats Tavern in Penn Quarter. Whipped up in cooperation with the National Archives, the establishment opened with exquisite timing on the Fourth of July, replacing Cafe Atlantico, the chef's three-floor salute to mojitos and feijoada.
Get there while you can. Designed to accompany the Archives' temporary exhibition "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet," America Eats Tavern is expected to close at the end of January.
Whether it's a grilled cheese sandwich in the ground-floor bar or a bison steak upstairs, each dish at the temporary installation comes with an enticing little bio.
Perhaps you're aware that the Cobb salad originated at the Brown Derby in Hollywood in the mid-1930s. But did you know that it was first made from leftovers that the owner tossed together? Jambalaya can be traced to Africa, France, Spain and the Middle East; according to America Eats Tavern, the earliest recipe for the melting pot of rice, seafood and pork was published in 1853 by Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman credited with helping establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Patrons of the youthful restaurant learn that lobster Newburg probably ought to have been billed as lobster Wenberg, and that the predecessor to all-American macaroni and cheese was Vermicelli Prepared Like a Pudding, inspired by a refugee from the French Revolution. The last dish is a revelation, a small turban of fine pasta that oozes Parmesan cream at the touch of a tine and comes with a crackling cover of gratineed cheese.
"I can't remember when I had more fun reading a menu," says a colleague at lunch. We're sitting on the second floor of the tavern, flanked by big white window frames featuring images from the food exhibit and grazing on Buffalo chicken wings that look as if they passed through a beauty salon on their way to our table. The four boneless wings, glossy and plump, are artfully set off with micro-celery and house-made blue cheese dressing. The fetching appetizer demands to be eaten with a knife and fork. Just as gorgeous are poached shrimp, sauced with too much butter but saved by bites of pink grapefruit. The starter is credited to "The Joy of Cooking," circa 1931.
America Eats Tavern is an exhibition that is best not rushed through, but experienced leisurely over several visits. One of the Mona Lisas of the collection is Andres's masterful take on oysters Rockefeller. It's a concert of broiled bivalves on a neat hedge of oniony sauteed spinach, garnished with both bacon strips and bacon crumbs and panko, then finished with anise butter. Almost as much fun are the raw oysters offered with vials of colorful fruit vinegars for dousing. Most intriguing: viognier laced with honey. A visitor to this edible museum also should make time for the mock turtle soup: slightly sweet veal meatballs and quail eggs bobbing in a Madeira-kissed veal stock, displayed handsomely in a clear glass bowl. The recipe is traced to 1796 and the first American cookbook.
Long before Heinz dominated our tables, Americans were using ketchups on their meat and fish, according to the research conducted by Andres's team. Tomato was but one base. Among others were gooseberry, anchovy, oyster and blackberry, that last being one day's designated escort for the tavern's fried chicken (perfectly fine squat croquettes). The condiment is thin and seesaws between sweet and stinging.
The cocktails are in tune with the rest of the menu. Taking imbibers back in time are Southside - a Prohibition-era refresher of gin, lemon and mint - and an 18th-century grog of rum and lime that supposedly warded off scurvy among sailors. All I know is that the latter is delicious medicine after a long day at work.
The culinary exhibition is not without flaws. That Cobb salad, presented in a big white bowl shaped like a Tilt-a-Whirl, is striking. But the visual feast of avocado, bacon, crumbled blue cheese and chicken - sliced in rounds the size of 50-cent pieces - masks a flaw: a shower of salt. Barbecued beef short ribs are tender but ordinary, and trailed by a dry garland of "cold slaugh." A heavy lid of pastry detracts from that chicken potpie. Did our forefathers consume foam and deconstructed food? Here and there, Andres leaves behind some of his modern signatures. On the plus side, the tavern has a real asset in its enthusiastic docents - er, servers - who season their delivery with colorful narration.
Dole Food is a co-sponsor of America Eats Tavern. Surprise, surprise: There's pineapple upside-down cake, warm and fluffy, for dessert. Key lime pie requires some assembly. The rippled bar of tangy mousse is bookended with neat piles of graham cracker crumbs and surrounded by islands of bruleed marshmallow. You should sidestep the silly Vermont Sugar on Snow, in which maple syrup is dropped on a snowbank of shaved ice, where it joins lemon gelee and hardens. The confection is messy and ugly. (Shovel it!)
Don't ask for espresso. "It didn't originate in America," a server apologizes. "But we have chicory coffee," she says. The bill is delivered in the pages of a vintage book.
America Eats Tavern is a fleeting place to explore the nation's past, but it's an idea with staying power.