Restaurant Review: America Eats Tavern – Best for a cocktail, some learning, and supporting the National Archives

August 20, 2011
I’m a fan of Jaleo and Zaytinya and of José Andrés generally.  So it hurts a little to say this, but I don’t know what to make of America Eats Tavern, the newest José Andrés restaurant to join Penn Andrés Quarter.  Wait, I take that back.  I think America Eats is a good way to support the National Archives and learn a little about our country’s culinary history while enjoying a cocktail.  I guess my dilemma is that America Eats seems to pale in comparison to Andrés’ other restaurants.  The food is just “okay,” relatively speaking.  One of Andrés’ many skills is his ability to create a menu with a variety of small plates that can be mixed and matched easily to form a complete meal.  You’ll understand, then, why I was surprised to find myself asking how am I supposed to make a meal out of these dishes?  Now, I know that America Eats is not a tapas-style restaurant.  Yet, it seems to be having some sort of identity crisis, hovering somewhere between a tapas-style restaurant and the rest, but missing key components of each.   I’ll explain more.  Keep reading!

America Eats opened a few months ago in the space formerly occupied by another Andrés restaurant – Café Atlantico.  A six-month “pop-up” restaurant, America Eats’ profits will be donated to the Foundation for the National Archives.  (Oh, and Minibar remains in its usual spot within the same building, so don’t worry, folks.)  I think that’s a fantastic idea.  We really should support our local museums.  Please don’t let the rest of what I’m about to say undermine the sincerity of that statement.

I reviewed America Eats’ website before dining there.  I was intrigued by the concept.  I liked that each dish on the menu came with its own mini-history lesson.  Here’s how the restaurant website describes the concept:

America Eats offers a new take on American classics and celebrates native ingredients and some long forgotten dishes, from burgoo to oysters Rockefeller.  With recipes and stories collected through extensive research, and with help from the National Archives and a culinary advisory council of chefs and scholars, the menu showcases the fascinating history of our nation one plate at a time . . .

But upon closer inspection, I was confused by the dishes offered.   I didn’t understand how they created a cohesive menu, at least from a culinary point of view.   For what it’s worth, I’ll say that my first and only experience at America Eats has been brunch. The brunch menu is slightly different than the dinner menu, but the two menus share many of the same dishes.  Therefore, I’m not so sure the distinctions substantially effect the opinions I express here. (Do what you will with that caveat.) We’ll get back to these thoughts.  For now, let me tell you how the food tasted.

For our first “course,” my brunch buddy and I split the Hangtown Fry and Fried Chicken.  We followed up with the Lobster Roll and Hushpuppies.

The Fried Chicken was juicy and had a nice thick, crispy crust that I liked, but my friend did not.  He likes his fried chicken with a finer, thinner breading.  We agreed to disagree on that. We both agreed, however, that the fried chicken was under-seasoned.  It was bland.  Also, it doesn’t look like fried chicken normally looks. Take a look at this picture.  Andrés’ fried chicken appears to be a boneless chicken thigh (thank goodness he used dark meat!) that had been formed into a disk, breaded, and fried.  It came with Blueberry Catsup. Why am I putting blueberries on my fried chicken??!

Before I answer my own question, let’s talk about the catsups for a second.  First, I like saying the word.  Second, the foodie geek in me thought this was pretty neat.   I learned that catsup, the “OG” of modern-day ketchup, was spicier and thinner than what we call ketchup today.   AND catsups used to be made out of more than just tomato.  In that spirit, America Eats offers a whole menu of catsups that include versions made with tomato, blueberry, anchovy, or oysters.   As excited I was about the concept of the catsup, I didn’t like the blueberry version.   I think I understand why the sweet blueberry catsup would be paired with the fried chicken.  The savory fried chicken and the sweetness of the catsup would theoretically create a nice contrast of flavors.  Of course, that’s assuming I like blueberries with my fried chicken (I don’t) and that the fried chicken was well-seasoned (it wasn’t).

The Hangtown Fry was better than the fried chicken.  Hangtown was apparently a town in California that was known for gold strikes and hangings.  (I can just picture the travel brochure in my head . . .)  The Hangtown Fry was a real dish that appeared on the menu at the Cary House restaurant back in the Gold Rush era and combined the most expensive ingredients of the time: eggs, bacon, and oysters.  In Andrés’ version, the eggs came scrambled and were fluffier and creamier than any other scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten.  The bacon was crispy and the oysters were breaded in a cornmeal mixture and then fried.  The perfect bite contained a little of each of these ingredients.  As I ate this, I asked myself why am I paying $12 for a slightly larger-than-tapas-sized portion of scrambled eggs, bacon, and two fried oysters?  This, like other dishes on the menu, seemed to be a few dollars more expensive than what I would think is reasonable.  But I guess your money is going to a good cause . . . Anyway, moving on . . .

The lobster roll, which comes with house-made chips, was good.  The roll was nice and buttery, and the sandwich had a decent bread-to-lobster ratio. (The filling-to-bread ratio is very important in any sandwich!)  It is by no means a big sandwich though.  Its key component (besides the lobster) was the delicious sauce drizzled on top, which tasted like butter and lemon.  The roll was also topped with special celery that undergoes some sort of molecular gastronomic technique that our waiter explained to us.  Apparently, it’s something the Minibar folks came up with to intensify the celery flavor.  It was pretty tasty for celery.

I thought the hushpuppies were very good. They came with creamy homemade corn butter.  My friend thought the hushpuppies should have been served with a sweet relish or marmalade-type dipping sauce. I was perfectly content with butter.  Hello?

The cocktail menu was quite interesting and I wouldn’t mind going back to try out a few of the other concoctions.  I had the Rickey (the official drink of DC!) because I love bourbon, soda, and lime.  It really is a perfectly refreshing, summer drink.  Personal note here: I’ve been making “Rickeys” for myself at home for quite some time now not realizing it was a real drink created a long time ago.  And here I thought I was a cocktail genius!

Get ready, I’m finally coming back to it now — my biggest dilemma at America Eats, shared by my brunch buddy, was agonizing over what to order.  We were confused by the portion sizes, which varied throughout the menu in no discernible way.  Aside from a few salads, there were no veggie dishes on the menu.  Is it because vegetables were not consumed as much in our colonial past? Maybe.  I don’t know.  Should it matter?  In fact, many of the options involved something fried.  This girl loves fried foods just as much as anyone else, but at least give me a few veggie options to make me feel like I’m getting a balanced meal.  What do I do with a plate of fried chicken?  Should I pair something with it?  Hushpuppies?  A salad?  Or what about chicken wings? What should I pair them with?  The colonial version of mac and cheese (a/k/a “Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding”)?  I’m exhausted!

Someone help me! This brings me back to my assertion that America Eats is suffering from an identity crises.  I think it’s trying to do too much.  It’s trying to be a food museum AND an expression of Andrés’ culinary point of view.  In their attempt to be historically accurate, Andrés and his collaborators have skimped where it really matters to me and most of the diners out there: we just want to eat good food at a reasonable price where the thinking has already been done for us and where we don’t walk away hungry.  I don’t want to agonize over which fried food to pair with another randomly fried food.   I want options that easily lend themselves to being paired together.

Maybe you’re reading this thinking: what the hell is she talking about and who cares?  Maybe my dilemma means absolutely nothing to you other than questioning your decision to read my blog.  It’s okay.  We won’t always agree.  If you disagree, I’d love to hear from you.  I’m not beyond admitting that maybe I’m missing something. (Probably not).

Best for:  Interesting cocktails, some appetizers, learning, and supporting the National Archives.

America Eats Tavern on Urbanspoon

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One Response to Restaurant Review: America Eats Tavern – Best for a cocktail, some learning, and supporting the National Archives

  1. Hungry in Arlington on August 22, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    I have a similar opinion of my experience at America Eats…I miss Cafe Atlantico. Keep up the blog!

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