America Eats Tavern: Revived in Tysons, with less history on the side

Two years after he closed America Eats Tavern, a Washington pop-up created to accompany a historical food exhibit at the National Archives, José Andrés has revived the flag-waving menu in a hotel in Tysons Corner where two other big brands didn’t succeed.

Care to explain your thinking, chef?

“They’re local!” Andrés says of his new business partner and co-host, the Ritz-Carlton, owned by the Bethesda-based Marriott. 

Now that Metro is poised to start whisking people there on its new Silver Line, “Tysons won’t be That Faraway Place!” he continues.

Then there’s this rationale: Having invested so much time and energy in the recipes, each researched as if by a scholar, the chef behind a world of restaurants (Jaleo, Minibar, Oyamel, Zaytinya, etc.) thought America Eats deserved a permanent home.

With memories of glamorous Buffalo chicken wings and refined macaroni and cheese dancing in my head, I headed to the new restaurant with my fingers crossed.

The original tavern replaced the three-floor Cafe Atlantico (now Menu MBK by chef Frederik De Pue) in Penn Quarter. The new America Eats Tavern is accessed by an elevator on the ground floor of the formal Ritz-Carlton. Anyone who visited the hotel when Michel Richard was serving bistro fare or Fabio Trabocchi was cooking four-star Italian food will not recognize the latest attempt to feed customers.

“We the people” is written in outsize script above the open kitchen, helmed by former Tallula chef Nate Waugaman, 38. Big wooden stars, blue leather booths and a flag on the ceiling whisper “Go, USA” without ever veering into kitsch. Like Andrés, designer Vincent Celano has a knack for having fun with the familar. Hence the vintage bike handles repurposed as wall ornaments.

“It’s important to transport people,” Andrés says. His latest effort does that. Among the few signs a patron is eating in a hotel are the hours (AET serves three meals a day) and the inclusion of a hamburger and hot dog on the menu.

While America Eats Tavern “2.0,” as Andrés calls the revival, serves many of the same dishes as its earlier self, the new menu is a breezier read. Gone, for instance, are the background notes, explaining the dishes’ origins. Happily, some of the same great flavors from 1.0 — pickled oysters on the half shell, “Vermicelli Prepared Like a Pudding” — live on.

You’ll shell out six bucks for a basket of bread here, but it’s money well spent; the tender biscuits and fluffy cornbread are both very good, and they come with a ramekin of soft butter that hides a sweet secret: blackberry jam in the center. Just as pleasing are crisp hushpuppies, their centers veined with corn kernels. Nestled in butcher paper, the snacks are best ordered with a spread of trout roe and butter.

The Waldorf salad makes me wonder why more restaurants don’t offer it. Chopped celery, apples and walnuts in a suggestion of mayonnaise is a winning combination and a sight to behold — at least as it’s served here, crowned with greens invigorated with sherry vinaigrette and garnished with walnut praline.

As a diner might expect, given Andrés’s Spanish lineage, the gazpacho is wonderful. Pale orange, the soup is poured over a single slice of tomato in a bowl as diners watch. The elixir stings with sherry vinegar even as it refreshes with cool, liquid tomatoes. Peanut soup, on the other hand, goes down like melted chilled peanut butter, a flavor profile that doesn’t improve with the addition of blackberries.

“Everything has a José twist,” a server says as she sets down a plate of lightly blackened scallops staged with lemon-butter foam and bits of pickled baby corn. The maestro of avant-garde cooking (don’t you dare call it molecular gastronomy) at Minibar, Andrés also dresses his lobster roll with mayonnaise espuma. The foam morphs into a sauce for the poached lobster, which arrives in a pail on a toasted bun that crackles when you cut it. The sandwich comes with excellent house-made potato chips seasoned with some of the same flavors used in Colonial days, says Waugaman: cloves, mace and black pepper.

Braised short ribs fall away from their bone at the touch of a knife; rubbed with barbecue spices, the beef is tasty, but even better are the rice and cow peas that shore it up.

A couple of dishes benefit from animation. The jambalaya for two is finished at the table by a waiter who would make an engaging performer on a TV cooking show as he introduces viewers to “the holy trinity” of New Orleans cooking: diced onion, celery and green bell peppers, which he scatters over the base of rice as he talks. Moist bites of chicken and zesty coins of andouille weigh in with their charms, as do the crimson crawfish that add substantial garnish to the plate. Chicken pot pie, another holdover from the original restaurant, has improved over time. Its pastry lid, removed as diners watch, was once heavy, but these days it’s fragile and flaky. Inside the pot are chunks of roast chicken, peas and baby carrots moistened with a delicate velouté that pushes their flavors to the fore. The result: enlightened comfort.

Drinks are in on the party, too. The most impressive of the bunch is a Ramos Gin Fizz rethought by mixologist Juan Coronado, who calls his version a “bar souffle” for the tall white cap of foam that rises a good two inches or so from the top of the glass when it’s presented.

Perhaps because of the restaurant’s youth, service varies from eager to intrusive. One server interrupted dinner so frequently, I was tempted to seek a restraining order.

The kitchen sends out more puzzlements than just that peanut soup. A mound of romaine with tiny croutons and a dressing that merely tastes wet don’t come close to what I call a Caesar salad. Fried chicken looks the part, at least until you slice into the limp skin and detect ... not much of anything, really. Hot sauce alone fails to revive the bland meal. As for the chicken wings, they still look as if they passed through a beauty salon on their way to the table, but they lack the succulence of those I recall from the tavern of yore in the District.

Did Martha Washington really use cocoa nibs to decorate her chocolate cake? Does anyone but a historian care? The dessert, said to be the first FLOTUS’s recipe, is a wedge of moist, rich satisfaction. Carrot cake doesn’t last long once you taste it, either.

Andrés offers another reason for bringing back America Eats Tavern with the support of a hotel: He wants to take the show on the road — as in, overseas. “America is not well-represented” abroad, says the would-be ambassador, who hopes to right that wrong by going forth and multiplying.

With some tweaks here and there,
I could see Europe lapping up his notion.

2 stars

Location: 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean, Va. 703-744-3999. americaeatstavern.com.

Open: Daily from 6:30 to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast, 11:30 a.m.to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 4:30 to 10 p.m. for dinner.

Prices: Appetizers $8 to $19 ; sandwiches and main courses $8 to $45 .

Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 1700 Tysons Blvd., McLean, Va. 703-744-3999. americaeatstavern.com.

Open: Daily from 6:30 to 11:30 a.m. for breakfast, 11:30 a.m.
to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 4:30
to 10 p.m. for dinner.

Prices: Appetizers $8 to $19 ; sandwiches and main courses
$8 to $45 .

Sound check: 70 decibels/
Conversation is easy.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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