405 8th St. NW, DC (formerly Café Atlantico space). 202-393-0812. www.americaeatstavern.com. Brunch, lunch, dinner, pre-theatre, cocktail/oyster hour.
Before I can get back to my travelogues, I have to give you a special emergency restaurant recommendation. Why emergency? Because it’s scheduled to close on July 4th of this year after completing its planned one-year run!
America Eats Tavern, owned by famed Spanish chef José Andrés (who also owns Oyamel, Café Atlantico, Zaytinya, and Jaleo, among many others), first opened last summer – on July 4th, natch. It’s named after the Works Progress Administration (WPA) writer’s project of the 1930s, which sent out-of-work writers across the country to research the regional cuisine of various areas. Andres moved Café Atlantico to make room for this concept eatery, whose menu showcases creative takes on beloved American food and drink, as well as “long forgotten” fare. During the run of last summer’s fabulous “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” food advertisement/history exhibit at the National Archives – for which the revered chef was the Chief Culinary Advisor – all of the Tavern’s profits were donated to The Foundation for the National Archives.
Eric and I visited around cherry blossom season and were happy to recognize some classic vintage ad prints for “vitamin donuts” and the like visible inside the tavern’s gracious three-story space. The first floor is for casual tavern dining, while the second and third floors offer the fancy stuff. Our host brought us all the way up to the top floor, where we sat right next to the balcony railing and had a spectacular view of a very creative mobile – a “scrapbook chandelier” – made out of windows and black-and-white photos (all featured in the Archives exhibit).
The service at America Eats was spectacular. All of our servers were about as attentive and friendly as it gets, but not so much so that we couldn’t take a bite without being interrupted. More difficult was the menu itself – there were so many cocktails and foods to try that we had no idea where to begin. Our main server had mentioned the three tasting menus, so we decided to take a look at those and ultimately decided upon the Mary Randolph ($65/person). (Mary Randolph, explained the menu, was essentially the 19th century Martha Stewart.) While we waited for our first course, we ordered cocktails from the Colonial age section of the menu – a switchel for Eric, and a cherry bounce for myself. The switchel, a “field worker’s drink from New England”, came in a Mason jar and consisted of rum, cider vinegar, molasses and ginger. It had quite the bite, and Eric was less than enthused at first, but it grew on both of us. The cherry bounce, on the other hand, won me over immediately. A favorite of our first First Lady Martha Washington’s, the tall frosty glass contained sour cherries soaked in rye, gin, lime, vanilla, and bitters. I could’ve had another one or five of these, but instead I made my next drink the Sherry Cobbler, a mix of Amontillado Sherry, orange and sugar showcased in a gleaming tin cup with a heap of crushed ice and a matching tin straw! (The menu explained the straw was a “new fangled invention” in the Colonial age.) The Cobbler couldn’t match the perfect spring heaven of the Bounce, but it was not for lack of trying.
As for the food … where do I begin? Our seven-course meal came in small, artfully presented tasting portions so that we weren’t too full to savor each new dish. (Here I should note that selections on each tasting menu are subject to change, so you aren’t likely to get the same selections each time.) Our server helpfully explained each selection as it arrived.
Sorghum Butter Hush Puppies. This may have been my favorite dish of the evening, with its insides so perfectly buttery they melted right in my mouth. The sweet melty molasses taste of the sorghum butter made it a fluffy heaven. I almost fell over with joy right there. This was going to be a great night.
Oysters – super slick and buttery, they came right out of the shell and were easy to savor.
Boneless Fried Chicken and two ketchups. Imagine perfectly juicy insides and delightfully light and crispy big cornflakes on the outside, and two delightfully strange ketchups to try. Even better, the chicken comes served in a little paper sack “dish”.
Waldorf Salad. Just the right amount of dressing and crisp rounds of apple.
Shrimp and Grits. The grits were the perfect consistency to me – textured, not too creamy. Bacon and chives rounded it out … mmmm. Oh sorry, I was getting distracted by the memory and floating off into foodie heaven again!
Eisenhower Stew. Named for the president of whom it was a favorite, this pile of perfectly cooked beef, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes arranged on a plate with just a little bit of beef stock isn’t very stew-like, but it sure is tasty. Perfect for a fall day.
Barbecue Beef Short Ribs. The meat fell right off the bone.
Cheesecake. Not super sugary, this “cake” had the consistency of mousse and sat atop a nice crumbly cookie “crust.” A creative spin on my favorite dessert!
The hush puppies with sorghum butter were far and away my favorite, whereas Eric loved the Waldorf salad best of all.
I cannot recommend this place enough. The high price tag is well worth it for this dining experience, complete with a dose of history, ambiance, presentation, and service. The cocktails alone – especially that Cherry Bounce – are enough to make you happy, but you will appreciate American food like never before when you savor it at America Eats Tavern. Chef Andrés did a fabulous job of presenting his love of American food. (If you are reading this, sir, can you please keep it open longer?)
Did you miss the National Archive exhibit? Check out the companion book, Eating with Uncle Sam. And read more about America Eats Tavern and Chef Andrés in this Washington Post article from July 2011!