America Eats Tavern is a pop-up dining concept that supports the National Archives exhibit "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?". The $8 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich is likely to leave you hungry. Photographs by Scott Suchman
Restaurant guides that break the dining experience down into categories—rating food, service, and ambience as if they were stations on an assembly line—often miss something essential about going out to eat. Restaurants are gestalt experiences: The individual parts matter less than the sum of those parts. A restaurant can do nearly everything right and still end up falling short because of one fatal flaw embedded deep in the design.
I was reminded of this at America Eats Tavern, the “pop-up,” or temporary, restaurant from celebrity chef José Andrés. I tried many dishes. Some of them were quite good, with impressively developed flavors and intriguing textural contrasts. I had attentive service. The atmosphere was lively.
So why did I come away so disappointed?
Andrés, a Spaniard, has built a reputation as a brash interpreter, taking on the flavors of the world (Mexican, Greek, Lebanese, Turkish) and making them his own. At America Eats, he has turned his attention to his adopted country, partnering with the National Archives and transforming his Café Atlántico into a short-term restaurant to support the Archives exhibit “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” Both will run through the end of January.
The dining space reinforces the archival spirit. There are sepia-tinted photographs, old-timey advertisements for brands that no longer exist, a blown-up Norman Rockwell picture of a freshly scrubbed family about to dive into a turkey dinner.
The menu dispenses with descriptions of dishes in favor of miniature histories—when a dish came to be, how it gained a following. You’ll learn about the importance of oysters to the 19th-century American table and the versatility of ketchup, which once appeared in a variety of guises as an all-purpose flavoring.
Ingredients? Cooking methods? Too trivial for such an archival project. This is an Andrés venture. The point is Andrés—his treatment of tradition, his spin on convention. Tradition for this chef has always been a starting point, something to bend and tweak in the manner of a studio wizard fiddling with knobs at the console, giving his raw materials different weights and values. Take Andrés’s version of a Philly cheesesteak, a staple on his menu at Minibar in DC and the Bazaar in Los Angeles: He reduces the role of the bread, intensifies the flavor of the meat (a thin slice of Wagyu), and not only improves the quality of the cheese (Vermont cheddar as opposed to Cheez Whiz) but alters its role (it becomes a sauce). The excitement of the dish isn’t in seeing a familiar thing made new but in seeing a familiar thing made better.
At America Eats, what is radically reinvented is too often ridiculous. And what isn’t radically reinvented is too often disappointing.
Andrés’s usual sure-handedness is not entirely absent. A delicate square of cod is set in a cubistically rendered clam chowder. A version of eggs Benedict swaps buttered toast for house-made croutons and gestures toward the richness of a hollandaise with poached eggs so runny they’re practically all liquid.
But some otherwise well-made dishes leave no impression at all—such as an old-school cocktail of poached shrimp and pink grapefruit or a crabcake with pickled watermelon rind—while others, most notably a deconstructed pot pie, are memorable for all the wrong reasons. A server displays the pie with the kind of pomp you’d expect if it were a Dover sole awaiting deboning, removes the top crust, and arranges the carrots, chicken, and sauce on a plate. Tasty—but the impression that remains isn’t of the delicate gravy and gently cooked vegetables but of a chef who believes that taking apart a humble diner staple is somehow akin to the literary experiments of Gertrude Stein.
The gall of putting a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on the menu and charging $8 is exceeded only by the preciousness of the presentation—it turns out to be two tiny sandwiches. A miniature jug of milk comes alongside it, accompanied by an earnest preamble from the server informing you of its provenance, as if it were a bottle of Bordeaux.
For a simple dish of corn, Andrés juxtaposes the rich, sweet creaminess of corn stripped from the cob with the crunchiness of lightly grilled baby ears of corn. It comes across as a cerebral exercise, not a sensual experience. It also costs $12.
The bison steak makes the corn and the PB&J look like bargains. It’s intended for two and costs $120.
The compensatory pampering amounts to white tablecloths and the refolding of napkins when you go to the bathroom. But tables are close together, and the hurried crisscrossing of servers lends the room the air of a tapas restaurant at prime time.
It’s hard not to wonder, “What if?”
The dish I kept thinking about long after my last meal was the Buffalo chicken wings—not because they were great but because they could have been. The boneless two-biters are coated in a barbecue sauce that, oddly, dispenses not just with the heat of the original but also with the sharp, vinegary bite. The tops are drenched in a blue-cheese sauce whose funkiness suggests a fine cheese. But that ripe funkiness also gets in the way of the chicken, rendering it almost beside the point, as if it were merely a delivery system for the cheese. Like too many cover versions, the wings were different for the sake of being different.
This deconstruction ad absurdum has become so common at high-end restaurants across the country that it’s ceased to be a novelty and become a kind of cliché—the expected thing.
This review appears in the November 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.