In post 4th of July celebration of America, I found myself longing for more engagement in our country’s beautiful history. Now, I am no history buff (nonetheless do I even appreciate history), but when it comes to examining America’s history through food, count me in. In the newest addition to the National Archives, What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? depicts how the government has shaped the way citizens think about food. From food rationing to the food pyramid, antique catsup (no, not ketchup) labels to exquisite presidential dinner menus, the exhibit covers it all. I was so intrigued by all of the artifacts and history that, honestly, I could have stayed longer and kept learning. Unfortunately the exhibit is rather short, but that’s where José Andrés comes in.
America Eats Tavern, conveniently located just two blocks north of the archives, has replaced Andrés’ beloved Café Atlantico with a modern twist on a classic American restaurant. “America Eats offers a new take on American classics and celebrates native ingredients and some long forgotten dishes,” claims the home page, and boy, does it ever. From seven different preparations of oysters, to fried chicken and homemade catsup, to mock turtle soup and everything in between, the menu offers something for everyone wanting to learn a little bit about America’s culinary history. Rather than give descriptions of the food underneath their titles, the menu shares a tidbit of history, as to where the dish originated, why or how it was first prepared, or the changes it has gone through since then. They even offer classic american beverages and cocktails, such as phosphates, mint julep, and homemade punch, served appropriately in a mason jar.
When I first heard that this exhibit-restaurant duo would grace DC with its presence, I was ecstatic. I mean, I made a large effort to go the second weekend it was open, even though it will last through January. My friend, Rachael, was in town for the weekend and the unbearable heat was a perfect excuse to take the afternoon to browse through a museum and eat a delicious meal. Speaking of our meal…
We arrived to the restaurant and I was immediately taken aback. My first thought was, “I can’t believe this used to be Café Atlantico!” Full on transformation, like Extreme Makeover, Restaurant Edition. The architecture is very unique, as each level is rather small and skinny but there are various floors dispersed throughout the air. You can see the kitchen in its entirety as you walk up the stairs. I was “that girl” who stood and stared as the chefs and waiters juggled plates, pots, pans, bowls and, oh yeah, FOOD! The classic American artwork, trinkets and artifacts definitely set the right ambiance.
We were seated on one of the upper levels, right next to the oyster bar, which is the usual host of Andrés’ six-seat tasting menu “restaurant,” MiniBar. It was amusing to watch as one of the chefs shucked oysters and filled them into molded plastic bowls over ice (I don’t like oysters, so this ploy to tempt us into ordering them was not very successful).
While overlooking the menu, Rachael and I realized we had a large task at hand. First of all, the menu could easily take you 10 minutes to read through, because of all of the history that’s slipped in! Of course I wanted read why Eggs Benedict was first created for a diner, by the last name of Benedict, who simply “wanted something new for lunch”, and how lobster was originally eaten by slaves and used as a fertilizer! There was no rushing me in my menu reading. I felt bad for our waiter, who returned to our table at least three times only to learn that we hadn’t even considered what to order for dinner! He was, however, very respectful and very knowledgeable (as I would assume is part of the job description, since none of the menu items actually tell you what’s in them!).
Finally we made some decisions. The bread basket looked too good to pass up. Included is a whole wheat Parker House roll, walnut-honey bread, cornbread roll and buttermilk biscuit, served with blackberry butter. Each carbo-licious creation was more amusing than the next, and the blackberry butter went perfectly with all of them. My favorite, surprisingly, was the Parker House roll. At first glance this roll seems like an average wheat dinner roll, but it was both savory and sweet, light and starchy and really, just awesome. The blackberry butter looked to be a swirl of homemade butter and blackberry compote. It was rich without being too overpowering. I probably would have eaten it with a spoon had I been in the privacy of my own home. Moving on…
Since there were so many dishes on the menu we knew we wanted to try, Rachael and I decided to order two smaller plates and share a main course. We went for the shrimp remoulade and fried green tomatoes, vermicelli prepared like pudding, and the barbeque beef short ribs with ‘cold slaw.’ I honestly can’t decide which dish I liked best, they were all so delicious and so unique. The shrimp was perfectly cooked and well seasoned. Moist, succulent and a little spicy, they sat on top of a thick puddle of a tangy, spicy, creamy remoulade sauce. I have a place in my heart for fried green tomatoes ever since visiting Savannah, Georgia, and these babies did not disappoint. The crunchy exterior was, just that; crunchy, and the tomato was juicy and sweet.
Now for the vermicelli. You are probably wondering one of two things. Either you are wondering what the hell vermicelli is, or you are wondering how on earth these people prepare a noodle like pudding. Question number 1 was just answered for you. Question number 2 will be answered briefly. This dish has taken the spotlight in most press reviews of America Eats. Why? Because they claim that it is a lighter version of mac ‘n cheese, but contains neither macaroni nor classic cheddar used in most versions of the dish. I wouldn’t exactly call this dish a ‘pudding’ as we have come to use the word, but it was definitely light, fluffy and oh, so delicious. The long, curly pasta is layered and molded into a lovely portioned disk, coated with a creamy but light parmesan sauce and broiled to crispy perfection on top. The ‘pudding’ is served with three delicate quarters of chanterelle mushrooms, dressed equally as well in the parmesan sauce. Don’t even bother attempting to recreate this one, because I am convinced the recipe calls for magic.
Finally, our main course had arrived. This short rib was artwork on a plate. A large and beautiful rectangle of beef, dressed in sweet, tangy barbeque sauce, served next to an elegant melange of shaved, chiffonaded and sliced vegetables, creating one of the most interesting- no, probably the most interesting- cole slaws I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I enjoyed that both northern and southern styles of barbeque sauce made a presence in this dish, and used both liberally. I used to not like barbeque sauce. Then I tried real barbeque sauce and my life has been changed forever. The cole slaw had everything from your standard slaw vegetables to raw brussels sprout leaves! I love brussels sprouts. The dressing was not too heavy, but just creamy enough for you to know it was there. It was perfect.
While ordering, we made a last minute decision to try one of the old fashioned drinks, a lactart. A lactart is basically a combination of seltzer water, milk and your choice of a fruit-flavored syrup. We went with raspberry. It was sweet and creamy and tasted like nothing I have ever tasted before. You can definitely tell the syrup is homemade.
After drooling over, biting into and cleaning the plates of every single dish we ordered, we were way too full for dessert, although the menu is rather outstanding. I would definitely return to America Eats and save room for their Sugar on Snow or Key lime pie. Altogether, our meal was fantastic. The service was supreme and the food, well, I think you get it. Our bill- on the larger side but obviously worth it- was delivered in a mason jar, and I laughed, saying “you would,” under my breath. Being able to visit both the archives exhibit and this museum-like restaurant itself was extraordinary, and while I have claimed myself to be “not a museum person,” I will definitely be back for more!