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With America Eats Tavern, Jose Andres offers bites of history

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A few historic cookbooks from Jose Andres’s personal collection are displayed inside a hulking glass case at his new America Eats Tavern in the former Cafe Atlantico space. The chef is attempting to explain each volume — a notebook kept by George Washington’s chef, a “Chemistry of Cookery” tome that proves Harold McGee didn’t invent that field — when he can’t stand it anymore. He suddenly wraps his arms around the glass case, gives it a big bear hug and yanks it off the stand. He wants to paw through his books and actually show me what he’s talking about.

It’s a classic Jose Andres moment, like when he pushed Anthony Bourdain’s head deep into a crate of peaches and commanded the “No Reservations” host to “smell it.” Andres is not a man who enjoys discussing anything abstractly. Whether food or history or cookbooks, the chef wants you to experience the subject in a direct, tactile way. He wants you to see and digest it yourself, so you can determine its relevance and importance.

America Eats Tavern would appear to be the brick-and-mortar embodiment of Andres’s personality; it is the chef’s attempt to make U.S. culinary history come alive for everyone who wanders into the multi-level restaurant. Andres says he has been working on the place “all my life,” a reference to his keen interest in American history and old cookbooks, but the truth is that he and his team at ThinkFoodGroup have been actively plotting the course of America Eats for only about six months. They’ve had even less time, about three weeks really, to transform Cafe Atlantico into this sensual exploration of America’s gustatory past.

“People ask me in Europe, when they do interviews . . . they ask me, ‘Well, how does it feel to be a cook in a country that doesn’t know how to eat?’ ” Andres says while previewing dishes and drinks from the America Eats menu. “It always touches a nerve, because Europe and the world think that America is no more than bad hot dogs and bad burgers. And America is so much more, and I think this is the place you’re going to get a sense that this is true.”

Andres’s new eatery is supposed to be a pop-up restaurant, a temporary operation designed to complement the “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” exhibit at the nearby National Archives, which is scheduled to close on Jan. 3. But as with practically everything he does, Andres has pushed himself and his staff beyond almost all reasonable expectations of a pop-up restaurant, as if he knows he will be judged by a higher standard now that he is the reigning James Beard Foundation award winner as the nation’s outstanding chef.

The space, in Penn Quarter, is no generic pop-up shell, able to assume any gastronomic identity in a matter of days. Cafe Atlantico has been strategically re-imagined by Seed Design, the firm that created the interiors for Andres’s China Poblano in Las Vegas. The designers have installed a “scrapbook chandelier” at America Eats’s core, running from the ground level to the top floor; the chandelier is, essentially, a mobile of rustic window frames, some of which are outfitted with images from the “Uncle Sam” exhibit, including Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving dinner painting.

Rob Wilder, Andres’s longtime partner in the ThinkFoodGroup, estimates that America Eats ultimately will cost about $250,000 to bring together, most of it covered by sponsors such as American Express and the Dole Food Co. The corporate partners give you a sense of how unusual this enterprise is; its purpose, once the bills are paid and the payroll met, is to raise money for the Foundation for the National Archives, whose mission is to drum up support for the archives and its outreach. Still, says Wilder, America Eats Tavern is not a nonprofit entity.

“Somebody can’t come in and write a check to us,” he says.

America Eats is, for all intents and purposes, the ThinkFoodGroup’s in-kind contribution to the “Uncle Sam” exhibit. Among others, Theodore Segal, a board member of the Foundation for the National Archives, had approached ThinkFoodGroup about making a donation and helping to promote the exhibit, which explores the government’s influence on what Americans eat. But during a February meeting with exhibit officials, Andres realized that the timing was perfect for his company to make a contribution more significant than a wad of cash and some marketing support.

ThinkFoodGroup, after all, already had plans to close down Cafe Atlantico and transform it into an expanded, 18-seat Minibar, Andres’s multi-course experience in modern cooking. The scheduled transition, Andres thought, could provide a window of opportunity for a pop-up restaurant dedicated to something close to his heart: American history and gastronomy. Those cookbooks behind glass at America Eats are not mere curios. They’re products of Andres’s passion; he’s a serious collector and consumer of historic American cookbooks, even the country’s literature. He’s just as moved by John Steinbeck’s morality tale in “The Pearl” as he is by the notebook of George Washington’s chef.

“He’s always making comments . . . about how native-born chefs haven’t been diving as deep into the cuisine and the history as he thinks it deserves,” Wilder says. “He’s like the Tocqueville of the culinary world.”

The reference to Alexis de Tocqueville is apt. The Frenchman practically invented the field of sociology with his two-volume “Democracy in America,” generally considered to be the definitive look at the embryonic United States. The Spanish-born Andres appreciates an outsider’s perspective. In fact, the chef says the best storytellers of a particular culture are often those who “came from far away and came with clear eyes and with no prejudices. You’re able to see sometimes what the locals are not able to see.”

Then again, Andres did have some local help putting together America Eats. David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, and the National Archives were actively involved in the project, providing documents, cookbooks and recipes. “They basically said, ‘What do you need?’” says Hollis Silverman, chief of operations at ThinkFoodGroup, “and we got it.”

ThinkFoodGroup also committed the full power of its culinary team to America Eats, from research assistant Robyn Stern to research and development director Ruben Garcia to lead bartender Owen Thomson. They worked for months tracking down historic recipes to fine-tune for the final menus. In some cases, the team probably rescued dishes from obscurity, or at least from hacks and tourist traps that have foisted inferior versions on diners.

Take America Eats’s version of peanut soup, that viscous, peanut-butter-based concoction that, in some form or another, has been a staple in Virginia since Colonial times. In Andres’s hands, the soup has been stripped down to its essence: pulverized peanuts, water, salt and mace. But when you take a spoonful into your mouth, the soup boasts a luxuriant texture, as if it were thickened with cream, which it decidedly is not. Andres’s team just allows the peanut’s natural fat content to give the soup its body.

“I’m very proud of this soup,” Andres says, admitting that he often can’t stomach the versions peddled in the Commonwealth. “This is one of the great soups of the world.”

ThinkFoodGroup’s research has unearthed some small treasures of American gastronomy and mixology (though I’m sure no soul in Colonial America would have dared utter the latter term, lest they be accused of sorcery), such as Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding, an 1802 recipe attributed to Lewis Fresnaye, a pasta manufacturer and refugee of the French Revolution. Andres’s team boils the pasta to order, mixes it with butter and Parmesan and compacts it into a round mold. It’s placed under a broiler and garnished with morels in season. With neither macaroni nor cheddar, this is probably the most delicate “mac ’n’ cheese” you’ve ever tasted.

“We wanted to re-create the oldest way of making cheese with pasta ever recorded in America,” Andres says, “because this has become a national dish in America.”

The line of eight catsups at the bottom of the menu is unique, too. Oyster catsup. Gooseberry catsup. Blueberry catsup. Mushroom catsup. Thinner and often spicier, these 19th-century catsups are nothing like the Heinz 57 you’ve been squirting on burgers since you could squeeze a plastic bottle. Long before tomato became the dominant ingredient in catsup/ketchup, Andres says, American cooks were creating condiments flavored with all manner of ingredients. The only problem, he notes, is that even though catsup recipes were prevalent in many cookbooks, the authors didn’t “tell you how they ate them.”

That is where history comes to a dead end — and where Andres and company have to blaze their own trail. (They decided, for example, to let you order a variety of catsups and try them with different dishes.) Such is the underlying process for most dishes at America Eats: They’re based on historic recipes, sometimes down to the ingredient, but each is executed and interpreted by culinary minds of the 21st century.

So although you will find many iconic dishes at America Eats — crab cakes, abalone, chicken potpie, strawberry shortcake, lobster roll — you won’t always find them prepared exactly as you remember them. The abalone, for example, is served in its iridescent shell and topped with a rich, buttery foam. The strawberries in the shortcake are partially hollowed out and filled with a strawberry gelatin. Even Thomson’s Franklin’s Milk Punch, a citrusy, cognac-based libation based on a recipe that Benjamin Franklin included in a letter, relies on contemporary tools. “I made it to [Franklin’s] specs,” Thomson says. “I just used a slightly more modernized version of straining.” He passes the curdled milk through a chinois and a coffee filter.

And that’s sort of the point of America Eats: to offer a taste of the past, yes, but to refine it for modern palates, so that the enterprise doesn’t come off as just one giant gastronomic dare. The menu anchors each dish to its proper place and time, no matter how contemporary it might look on the plate. Everything has a short history tied to it.

“If we don’t see the story as an ingredient,” Andres says, “we miss a very important part of the [dish].”

Just days before America Eats Tavern was set to open on the Fourth of July, the restaurant received a surprise visitor: Sam Kass, the assistant White House chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives. He arrived bearing gifts. He had a late-19th-century White House cookbook for Andres to add to his collection. But more than that, Kass had a message to deliver about America Eats Tavern, which he calls a “profoundly important restaurant.”

“I told [Andres] that he has no choice,” Kass said about America Eats. “He has to make it permanent.”

Recipe

Mushroom Catsup

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