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America Eats Tavern: History on a Plate

My husband, exploring the various menu options

When I heard that my favorite DC restaurant, Cafe Atlantico, had changed names, I was very sad.  But then I learned that it changed more than its name–it changed its whole persona.  And, in my opinion, that change was for the better.

America Eats Tavern is a temporary ‘installation’ restaurant, created in conjunction with the What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? exhibit at the National Archives.  The menu tells the story of American cuisine in the best way possible–by allowing you to eat it.  There are three tasting menus available, as well as a regular a la carte menu to choose from.

Your server acts more like a museum docent than a member of the waitstaff, first explaining the menu itself, and then each entree as it comes out.  Interestingly, the menu does not include descriptions of the dishes–it provides only historical information.  For example, the Oysters Rockefeller are listed thusly…

 

Oysters Rockefeller

Antoine’s, New Orleans 1899

When Antoine Alciatore’s escargots grew hard to find and out of fashion, his son Jules reinvented the dish with local Gulf oysters.  He named it for the riches man in the world because it tastes and looks like a million dollars.  Jules’ original recipe remains a secret.

 

The three different tasting menus at America Eats Tavern

…see?  No description at all.  But that’s ok, because even if there was a description of what the dish is supposed to be, that’s not going to be what you get.  All of the classic American dishes were reinterpreted–and many of them deconstructed–in classic Jose Andres fashion (if you are not familiar with Jose Andres, just know this–his food looks less like food and more like art.  If you’ve ever seen Iron Chef or Top Chef, you get the idea.)

While the a la carte menu is extensive, I’m a sucker for tasting menus, and America Eats Tavern offers three different options–the five-course Irma Rombauer Menu, the seven-course Mary Randolph Menu, and the ten-course Amelia Simmons Menu.  The offerings are listed in the poorly-taken iPhone photo, right.  Feeling very middle-of-the-road, my husband and I chose the seven-course Mary Randolph menu, mainly because everything listed sounded pretty good.  And it was.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I took actual notes during this entire meal–all so I could bring you, dear reader, the story of a most educational dining experience.  If you will forgive the low quality iPhone photos, I will walk you through the history lesson that is the Mary Randolph tasting menu.

Cherry Bounce Cocktail

Ok, I admit it–I didn’t take notes on the historical significance of this drink.  I know it was a favorite of a first lady, but I don’t remember which one.  I want to say Martha Washington, but maybe that’s just because I’m associating cherries–and cherry trees being chopped down–with our nation’s first president.

But the drink it self was very, very good.  Comprised of cherry bounce–which is rye-soaked sour cherries–gin, lime, vanilla, and bitters–the most fun part of the drink was the insane ice cube floating in it.  It was very…Little House on the Prairie.  Like I could picture someone chopping a big slab of ice like that off of an even bigger slab from somewhere in the depths of an old ice house.  But old fashioned ice ‘cube’ aside, the cherry bounce is one of those drinks that kind of grows on you–not impressive at first, but with a very interesting finish.  It was a good balance of sour, sweet, and bitter, with a very dry finish that made me want to keep drinking it. I wish I could have another, but sadly I don’t happen to have any rye0soaked sour cherries lying around the house. Which is a pity, because they really do make one fantastic drink.  But then I also don’t have a giant slab of ice, either.

 

Hush Puppies with Sorghum Butter and Caviar

One perfect bite

Have you ever heard of sorghum?  I had not–but that’s ok, because the all-knowing waitress explained it to me.  Sorghum is a sweetener fermented from a type of grass of the same name.  It is similar to molasses.  The sorghum butter also contained vanilla and molasses, two ingredients that, when combined with sorghum (or molasses) are the chief ingredients in pecan pie.

Hush puppies were named for their purpose-.  According to our waitress, hush puppies were nothing more than fried bits of dough that people would give to their actual dogs.  Today, they are typically fried balls of cornmeal batter, which is what I believe these were.

On their own, the hush puppies were kind of bland.  The sorghum butter greatly improved the flavor, but then I added the last element–the caviar–and the flavor literally exploded.  The saltiness of the caviar brought out the sweetness in the sorghum butter and made it taste like the best butterscotch you’ve ever had.  It was a fabulous start to the meal.

 

Grilled Butter Oysters

Grilled butter oyster--slurping of oyster brine required

It’s really hard to take notes while eating, and so my notes for this dish only read ‘famous dish from some restaurant in New York City’.  I failed to note the name of the restaurant, likely because I was already approaching information overload (but just wait–we have five more courses to go!)  The historically interesting thing about some restaurant was that it was run by a free black man and was part of the underground railroad.  I really kind of wish I knew the name of the restaurant.  But, sadly, even Google cannot help me answer that question.

The interesting thing about the oysters was that they were actually injected with butter.  My notes go one to describe them as ‘tender in a sexual way.  Not kind of sexual, entirely sexual’.   Though they could have used a touch of salt.

Yeah–that’s right.  I just described a dish as entirely sexual and then complained about the lack of seasoning.  I’m that picky.

Waldorf Salad

This was my least favorite of all of the dishes.  I suppose it was fresh and crisp, and I suppose the apple-celery balls were unique.  And yes, when you mixed it all together–which was crucial for enjoyment of the dish–it tasted just like a Waldorf Salad.  But I don’t really like Waldorf Salads.  It was the lone dish on the tasting menu that I wasn’t looking forward to, so I guess it lived up to my expectations–or lack thereof.

Additionally, the only information we were given about the dish I already knew–that it originated in the kitchen of the Waldorf hotel in New York City.  And even if I didn’t know that, I’d like to think I would have assumed as much, given the name and all.

Fried Chicken with Catsup

Fried Chicken and Catsup

Doesn’t this dish sound so un-fancy?  Well, it was pretty un-fancy–served in a brown paper bag spotted with grease, this was definitely not the kind of food I usually associate with a Jose Andres restaurant.  That is, of course, until I bit into the chicken.  It was, hands down, the juiciest, most flavorful fried chicken I’ve ever had.

The chicken was served with two different catsups–a word, I learned, we got from China via England and a sauce, I learned, that was originally soy based–a grape and a cranberry.  The cranberry was thicker and thus more like actual catsup, but the grape had an almost barbecue sauce flavor that I really enjoyed.  But–and this is important to note, given my love of all things condiment–I preferred the chicken naked.  That’s how good it was.

Of course, it’s not all about the finger-licking goodness.  There was something to be learned with this course, too.  Aside from the afore mentioned history of catsup, I learned about the Charleston Slave Market–which is not what it sounded like.  The Charleston Slave Market was a place where South Carolina slaves went to shop and sell items they made for profit.  One of these items was, of course, fried chicken, which they sold from woven palm frond baskets to the many lawyers that worked along the same street.  Apparently they would walk around with the open baskets of fried chicken, and the smell would entice the men who were working with open windows–which I can totally understand.  I would have been enticed for sure–cranberry catsup or not.

Shrimp ‘n’ Anson Mill Grits

Best shrimp and grits ever

The story that came with this dish really made me feel like I was experiencing more of a museum tour than a meal.  I learned that the dish was based on the meal served at George Washington’s inauguration.  Though it wasn’t his presidential inauguration, because we–as a country–had not even decided upon what we would call our leader until close to the end of Washington’s first term.

Sorry, but I find that to be grippingly interesting.  Our first president didn’t even know he was president for the first four years of his presidency.  Now that’s how you know you are doing something cutting edge–there isn’t even a name for it yet.

But back to the shrimp and grits.  This is yet another example of the flavor layering I’d begun to realize in each of the dishes.  Every component of each dish is ok on its own, but when combined together creates something more than the sum of its parts.  The grits, at first taste, were a bit lumpy and a bit salty for my taste, and I felt they could use a bit more cheese.  However, they were still light and enjoyable.  But combine them with the bacon-laced sauce–and wow.  I didn’t even need the shrimp, which, to be fair, were perfectly cooked.

Barbecue Beef Short Ribs with Hoppin’ John

Beef shortribs

Are you tired of reading this review yet?  Because at this point in the meal, not only was I approaching full–despite the small portions–but I was beginning to tire of note taking.  I only know that this dish was America Eats Tavern’s homage to great American BBQ, and that the beef was first smoked, then roasted, then rubbed.  Seems like a strange order to me, but it turned out wonderfully.

I don’t remember what Hoppin’ John is, other than a sort of beans and rice dish made with what I think were black eyed peas.  I also have no idea who John is or why he is hoppin’.  But I do know that the hoppin’ John was just salty enough to compliment the tangy barbecued beef.

Key Lime Pie

The Mary Randolph Menu was supposed to come with New York cheesecake as dessert, but our waitress asked if we’d rather have key lime pie pecan pie.  Being a fan of all things sweet and sour, I jumped at the key lime pie–and it did not disappoint, even as the seventh course in the eleventh hour.

But it is never to late to learn, so we were treated to a few more tidbits about key lime pie–how it was created to utilize the newly invented condensed milk, and how all of the key lime trees had somehow died out–I don’t remember how–but that they were transplanted and saved–I also don’t remember how.  I ordered a glass of chardonnay after my cherry bounce cocktail, ok?

Key lime pie

The key lime pie was the most deconstructed of the dishes, as you can see from the photo above.  It consisted of a squiggle of key lime pie filling, some graham cracker crumbs, two puffs of meringue that tasted more like marshmallow, and the highlight of the dish, a lime foam.  I tasted it, giggled, and offered a taste to my husband–who also giggled.  It is impossible to keep from giggling when eating what really amounts to lime-flavored air.  It’s a crazy experience–as was this entire meal.

I honestly cannot remember having a more enjoyable meal, possibly ever.  Of course, I’m a giant nerd and I love to learn.  And, as you likely also know by now, I love to eat.  So this was clearly an experience that seems designed specifically for me.  My only regret was not knowing that I should have visited the National Archives exhibit first.  So if you are considering visiting America Eats Tavern, I strongly suggest you stand in the (very long) line for the Archives earlier in the day.

America Eats Tavern is located at 405 8th Street NW–at D Street NW–in Washington, DC, conveniently across the street from the National Archives.  Reservations are strongly recommended.  And I strongly suggest making them ASAP, because this restaurant won’t be around forever–it is only around until July 4th, 2012.

In the spirit of full disclosure:  I occasionally include a disclosure statement at the end of a blog post when the experience I reviewed was provided for free or at low cost in exchange for a blog post.  This is NOT one of those reviews.  Just in case you were wondering. 

Additionally, please excuse the poor photo quality.  They are all iPhone photos taken in a dim restaurant.  Did I regret not bringing my real camera?  Yes.  Yes I did. 

 

 

 

 

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