06 December 2011

America Eats Tavern, DC, serves tradition avant-garde

Originally I had mixed feelings about America Eats Tavern in DC. I was excited because Chef Jose Andres was the creative mind behind the project. But I had some concerns.AmericaEats4

First of all, it replaced one of my favorite DC restaurants – Café Atlantico. Second, I was afraid that the concept was kind of gimmicky. It’s a so-called ‘pop-up restaurant,’ a temporary restaurant to test out a particular theme. In this case, the theme is American food prepared with native ingredients and inspired by historical  recipes. The thing I like about Jose Andres is his passion for creating a memorable dining experience, his creativity in ingredients, and the delightful flavors that come out of his kitchens. I didn’t want to be served something just because it’s a ‘native’ food or because it’s historically authentic preparation.

Well, I shouldn’t have worried. For the most part, my two experiences at America Eats have been up to the standards that I expected from Chef Andres. By the way, on my first visit last July, for lunch, I got to meet him! I arrived a little later than the normal lunch crowd. As I was waiting to be seated, I saw him walking toward the front of the restaurant. I didn’t want to seem like a star-struck groupie, but I asked the hostess if I could get a picture with him. He graciously agreed. After the photo, he went on his way, and I was seated.

For that lunch, I had a gazpacho and a lobster roll. Both were fabulous. The gazpacho was served by pouring the cold soup into the bowl around an island of croutons and tomatoes. The lobster roll consisted of large chunks of chopped lobster held together with a light dressing, served on an airy roll that was more like a brioche than a bun.AmericaEats1

I returned for a dinner at the end of November with three colleagues in DC. When our server greeted us, he advised that portions are small, so we should consider ordering something from each section of the menu – oysters, appetizers, soups/salads, and entrées. Seemed like a lot. While I do like oysters, I decided to take a pass this time, and my colleagues followed suit.

For the appetizer round, I had shrimp etouffee. It was delicious. Some of the other apps around the table – an unusual take on macaroni and cheese, this one made with vermicelli noodles, also an order of shrimp and grits that was quite good. And for the table, we split an order of hush puppies; they were excellent.

From the soup/salad section, I ordered the gazpacho again. I liked it just as much as the first time. One of my colleagues ordered the crab cake. The crab cake itself was great. But it was served with a slaw made from shredded Brussels sprouts that was very unusual and delicious. The beet salad, ordered by another of my guests, was a real attention-getter. On the plate were four beautiful, round baby beets and four balls of shredded beets. My guest said it was delicious, but quite a lot of beets for one person to eat. The fourth item we ordered was she crab soup, also very good.AmericaEats7

Finally, for the entrées, here’s what we ordered: bison steak (for two), blackened croaker (a rustic Southern fish), and Eisenhower’s beef stew. I split the bison with one of my guests. It was good, but the meat was a little fatty. I was surprised because I’ve always thought that bison is supposed to be a very lean meat. The croaker was good, but not really much different from any other blackened fish. The stew was very unusual in that it was served ‘deconstructed’ with two generous chunks of stew meat in the middle of the plate and the vegetables arranged around the side. It was not at all stew-like.

So while all of the entrées tasted good, they were the most disappointing part of the meal. If any part of the meal bordered on being gimmicky, it was the entrées. They also were kind of expensive, and, as the server said, the portions were not large. I think I probably would have been happier if I’d ordered one of the oyster courses and skipped the entrée.

The ambiance of America Eats is basically the same as Café Atlantico – rustic and casual. Our server was good. He was attentive, friendly, informative. Coincidentally, we had the same server at dinner as I did for my solo lunch six months before. He told us that America Eats Tavern will remain in operation until July 4, 2012, a one-year run. Then the space will evolve into something new.AmericaEats6

Meanwhile, I got a bit of good news when he told us that Café Atlantico will be reopening nearby, in the space that currently houses Zola. I couldn’t confirm that news. But if it’s true, I’ll be glad to have it back.

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