The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Fall Dining Guide.
America Eats Tavern
José Andrés never dreams small. Have you heard? The globe-trotting chef wants to take the sole American restaurant in his collection and replicate it in Europe, which he thinks lacks proper U.S. dining representation. Rolled out as a pop-up featuring historical dishes in Penn Quarter seven years ago, then opening and closing in Tysons, America Eats Tavern now calls Georgetown home. The third iteration, which replaces Old Glory, feels like a keeper. “America the Beautiful” pops into my head when I read the menu, sprinkled with dishes that have made this country great: creamy crab cakes, golden fried chicken, Cobb salad to honor California and an honest hot dog. This kitchen sweats the details — coleslaw made a la minute, a brioche bun for the frank — although the barbecue will disappoint enthusiasts. Sunny servers and lemon meringue tart leave better impressions.
America Eats Tavern: 3139 M St. NW. 202-450-6862. americaeatstavern.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Prices: Sandwiches and mains, $12-$28.
Sound check: 76 / Must speak with raised voice.
The following review was originally published Sept. 19, 2018.
José Andrés takes his edible history lesson to Georgetown
Our server takes us on a road trip up and down the East Coast with his description of one of the most enticing salads of the season.
“The watermelon is from Florida,” he says, pointing to a pink disc carpeted with a bevy of accents, including diced avocado. “The peanuts are from Virginia, and the goat cheese is from Pennsylvania.” The cool fruit is cut into easily retrievable chunks; the tongue detects sweetness trailed by crunch, salt and tang. I make a mental note to re-create the salad at home, come the next scorcher.
Right now, I’m enjoying the refreshment in the third iteration of America Eats Tavern, originally conceived as a pop-up seven years ago by everywhere chef José Andrés. The dining draw, designed as a living museum celebrating historical American food in conjunction with the National Archives, ended up relocating from Penn Quarter to the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner . The restaurant shuttered two years ago. Great idea, tough location.
The intent at the preceding taverns was to showcase American dishes as they were originally made. The history lessons that have transferred to the new location, formerly the barbecue restaurant Old Glory, include a 19th-century version of mac and cheese featuring fine vermicelli noodles and bechamel sharpened with aged Wisconsin cheddar. The appetizer, served in a cast-iron skillet, acquires a crisp lattice cover under the broiler. More recent is a Cobb salad, a 1930s Hollywood creation that gathers the traditional components — chicken, bacon, avocado, blue cheese — in an updated way, delivered in lettuce “cups” and bright with lemon dressing. Leading the charge in the kitchen is Colombia native Claudio Foschi, a veteran of the previous AET and, like his Spanish boss, a naturalized American citizen.
As with so many of his employer’s projects, there’s a bigger goal in mind than just feeding D.C. and its visitors. Nothing would make Andrés happier than to take America Eats Tavern on the road, as in Europe, where he sees a need to be filled. His ideal would be to serve food that would whet the appetites of foreigners while making “any American feel at home.”
Crab cakes would make distinguished ambassadors abroad. They are mostly seafood, shaped with an assist from mayonnaise, mustard and herbs. Pickled onion, Brussels sprout petals and shredded cabbage form a colorful amphitheater around the main attraction. Buttermilk-brined fried chicken shows well, too. The goodness of the shrimp and grits is vouched for by my server, a transplant from Charleston, S.C., where the dish enjoys the ubiquity of a Kardashian. Sure enough, the pearly shrimp, cheesy grits — and a moat informed by smoked ham hocks and shellfish stock — put you in a South Carolina frame of mind. Is one of the cooks a Southern momma? Such dishes as the corn bread — pocketed with kernels and a splurge when eaten with the accompanying smoked butter swirled with sorghum syrup — taste like it.
The menu is the same for lunch and dinner and takes into account modern appetites. Look, then, for a fried egg sandwich made fat and fun with pork belly, caramelized onions, cheddar cheese and Creole mustard — a whopper made more decadent with a thatch of thick Saratoga chips. And heed the specials, which is how I fell for the watermelon salad, long may it be offered.
“So far, so great?” a server
wants to know one visit. The truth is, not all dishes are created equal at America Eats Tavern. Salmon paved in benne seeds and ringed in a smoked tomato sauce with okra and corn is pleasant enough, but smacks of a work in progress. Parker House rolls, which
appear with the cheese course, are glossy with butter but sometimes taste like yesterday’s batch, rewarmed.
A whiff of smoke in the air tempts you to order barbecue. Resist. Indeed, the preparation seems to have devolved from opening month. Recent encounters with pulled pork (dry) and spare ribs (ditto) were misadventures. The problem isn’t just with meat, either. Grilled oysters splayed on a bed of seaweed are fine on their own, less when their shells come with puddles of barbecue sauce that’s a ringer for the binder in canned baked beans.
The owner’s daughters gave him the idea for (chocolate chip) cookie pie, baked to order and appropriately gooey in its skillet. On the lighter side is a lemon meringue tart, a swirl of ice cream and lemon curd capped with lightly torched whipped egg whites. One treat is homey, the other elegant. Both make you glad you’re sitting in this two-story restaurant outfitted in brick walls, retro murals, red leather booths and “We the People” signage. And bless whoever thought to keep the big white sink in the main dining room, the tavern equivalent of moist towelettes.
“Every restaurant I open is always a story,” Andrés likes to say. The premise of America Eats Tavern is still a novel one, and I can see it developing an audience overseas. Especially after some edits, starting with that barbecue.