Old Glory BBQ is yesterday’s news, but the smell of smoke lingers in its replacement. That’s a good thing, given that the new occupant of the two-story restaurant in Georgetown is the third iteration of America Eats Tavern, which just happens to list barbecue on its menu.
Initially introduced in 2011 by José Andrés as a pop-up to coincide with a historical food exhibit at the National Archives in Penn Quarter, America Eats Tavern subsequently moved to the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, where it served Waldorf salad, jambalaya and Ramos Gin Fizz until it went dark two years ago.
Fans of the concept shouldn’t expect to see all their favorite dishes from prior Taverns; the renovated kitchen in the Georgetown outpost is about a quarter the size of the one in Tysons, says executive chef Claudio Foschi, 39, who worked there and at other ThinkFoodGroup restaurants in recent years. For now at least, that means no chicken pot pie or jambalaya.
That still leaves plenty to salute. Warm hush puppies, for instance, their crisp exteriors yielding to fluffy centers, and mac and cheese, a fetching weave of aged cheddar and short-cut vermicelli served in a cast-iron skillet. The fishing is equally fine. Crab cakes, lightly bound with mayonnaise and veined with fresh herbs, are sweet with jumbo lump crab from Maryland, while whole grilled trout — the hit at a recent dinner — benefits from a marinade that borrows the bright accents of green goddess dressing.
This is a kitchen that sweats the details. The hot dog, a half-smoke, is nestled in a brioche bun, for instance. And coleslaw, a companion to several dishes, including the satisfying buttermilk-brined fried chicken, is assembled a la minute and with pickled shallots, for maximum crunch and verve.
American Eats Tavern sidesteps politics with its barbecue, new to the brand’s menu, by not promoting any one style. Beef, chicken and pork are cooked in two Southern Pride smokers, fueled with cherry wood. Brisket, cooked for up to 16 hours, is tender but with enough chew to please enthusiasts. The sliced meat is served with an unexpected, but rousing, salsa verde — a foil to the rich brisket, which could benefit from a touch more smoke. The house barbecue sauce, brushed over meaty grilled chicken wings as well as mussels strewn over a bed of seaweed, starts with a base of tomato to which mustard, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider and tamarind get added. (I’d prefer a swab that’s less sweet, honestly.)
The smokers are used to flavor more than meat; a delicious case in point is the yogurt that serves as a dip for a thatch of fried okra.
The coolest finish is a big bowl of shaved ice strewn with juicy cherries — so many we share the largesse with a neighboring table of diners. But the best dessert is a lemon meringue tart, its center containing a surprise: tangy lemon curd folded into ice cream and some blueberries for contrast. I have a hard time believing the chocolate cake attributed to Martha Washington included cacao nibs, but I make light work of the dark decadence on my plate.
Located off the busy intersection of Wisconsin and M streets, the Georgetown setting may be the best fit yet for the celebration of American cooking. Even before diners get their first taste of food, the combination of retro murals, leather booths, welcoming bar and exposed brick walls conspires to seduce them. Servers in blue-and-white shirts make for enthusiastic guides. The restaurant’s Madeira selections, they point out, are a link to the Founding Fathers’ quaff of choice.
No employee got more into the American spirit than the executive chef. Shortly before America Eats Tavern opened, Foschi became a U.S. citizen.
3139 M St. NW. 202-450-6862. americaeatstavern.com. Sandwiches and entrees, $10 to $40 (for a full rack of pork ribs).