America Eats Tavern: Time-Honored Recipes
Re-Envisioned for the Modern Palate

At the beginning of May, I had the distinct pleasure of joining in on the one of America Eats Tavern’s exclusive cocktail classes. (Read the story). This was my first experience with America Eats and the culinary stylings of ThinkFoodGroup founder Chef Jose Andrés. So, when I returned to sample the historically-accurate food being offered up by the team at America Eats Tavern in collaboration with the Foundation for the National Archives, I was met with the pleasant feeling of consistency. New and unusual can be amazing the first time out, but in the end, the most important element in any restaurant’s success is consistency: in service, in food quality, in the overall experience. Now, just a few weeks later, my second visit (as a guest of America Eats) was not only a test of the consistency of the Andrés team in this joint venture, but also a last chance to sample their historically-accurate cuisine before America Eats Tavern shuts its doors on July 4th.

When initially offered a choice between two tables – one next the windows and the other closer to the kitchen and stairwells – I opted for the latter. The kitchen lay just a half-floor below, barely twenty-five feet from my table. The open floor plan is not atypical in many newer restaurants, and since America Eats is a pop-up destined to close its doors on July 4th (hopefully not for forever), the choice to keep the kitchen open and visible to patrons is an easy one. The noise level wasn’t distracting; if at any point there were any problems in the kitchen, my attention was never drawn in that direction due to sound. In addition, because of the placement of the table, other patrons went directly past in order to walk down from the top level of the restaurant down to the bottom floor. Even the foot traffic did not disturb my dining experience – something I truly believed would be an issue.

If you’re an oysters purist, perhaps the preparation of the Grilled Butter Oysters would not be to your liking. Each of the four Barcat oysters (sustainably grown in the Chesapeake Bay) were gently grilled over an open flame, floating in a small pool of butter but still in possession of the lip-smacking saltiness that makes fresh seafood delectable and so difficult to cook to perfection. As a relative newcomer to oysters, this was a perfect presentation of oysters in balance: simply cooked, and yet retaining their essential flavor profile. Sprinkled across each oyster was a healthy dose of mace – a spice more often seen in baking, but not unwelcome in countering the fattiness of the butter.

To accompany the oysters were the Hush Puppies with Homemade Sorghum Butter. Where the oysters were delicate and briny, the hush puppies were the perfect opening to a night of comfort food. Crunchy exteriors hid a sweet corn, soft interior that paired amazingly well with the compote butter. I found myself going back to the butter, trying to determine if the saltiness or the sweetness were the predominant taste. (It’s a tie.)

After the cocktail class a few weeks prior, I had to order my favorite cocktail from that afternoon: the Old Fashioned. Ben Wiley, one of the teachers from the class, was behind the bar again this evening and the Old Fashioned brought up to my table was an exact replica of the one I remembered. Comprised of WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey, a 100 percent rye whiskey at 100 proof, my Old Fashioned was served up with an orange twist and a massive ice cube that lasted through the rest of my meal.

Shortly after I received my cocktail, my first dish arrived. America Eats Tavern is set up much like tapas – the idea is to choose several dishes, one from each section of their menu. The Shrimp ‘N’ Anson Mill Grits was an easy choice. As the oldest known recipe in America, it even predates the creation of the country itself – it was the kind of dish that would have been served to George Washington during his inauguration celebrations. My first introduction to shrimp and grits was through a former coworker, and since then I’ve made several versions at home with friends and family. With that in mind, I wanted to see what America Eats would produce with such a distinctive dish. Served with one of the Madieras from their Vinos Barbeito Historic Series, the dish did not disappoint. Stone ground white grits flavored with a health dose of butter and cream were then dotted with small nuggets of bacon and topped off with the lightly cooked shrimp and microgreens. In the same fashion of the mace on the Grilled Butter Oysters, across the top of the entire dish was a light dashing of fresh ground pepper as well as fleur de salt – gray sea salt that imparted a smokiness that played well off the creamy grits. With many shrimp and grits recipes, one ingredient can easily overwhelm another, due to the use of copious amounts of butter, cream, onions, garlic, or bacon during the cooking process. With this dish, it was nice to taste many of these ingredients in the background, rather than as the predominant flavor. At the suggestion of my server, I tasted the small glass of madiera along with this first course – paired together, they played off each other. Madiera is a sweet, fortified wine, and not something I would have chosen for myself in the middle of a meal.

Unintentionally, I chose two shrimp dishes back-to-back. But while the Shrimp ‘N’ Anson Grits was comforting in its familiarity, the Shrimp In Grapefruit Cocktail was fascinatingly different. Citing a source that is familiar in many American kitchens – Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking – the dish seemed a nice middle to an otherwise heavy meal. Simply arranged in a circle, the dish played on the classic pairing of seafood and citrus with the Jose Andrés twist. Each of the five shrimp was poached in salt water, retaining enough salinity to keep the bite of the grapefruit segments at bay. The light lime vinaigrette was less acidic than I expected, and I was surprised to find a healthy shot of olive oil floating in the middle of the plate. It was a refreshing dish, relying on light and easy flavors, yet holding it’s own against the rest of the evening’s offerings.

The winner of the evening (as well as the only dish I took issue with) was the BBQ Beef Short Ribs with Hoppin’ John. Served with the Seghesio Zinfandel out of Sonoma, California, the short ribs were served tableside with steaming hot hoppin’ john. The short ribs are slow roasted for 36 hours, then finished off with a spice rub on the grill. Jus from the short ribs is added to the heirloom beans in the hoppin’ john, along with bacon, rice, salt, and more of their spice rub. The presentation, with a broad stroke of sauce down the middle of the plate, is dramatic and completely in tune with the big flavors of the dish. At first, I wished that a sauce based out of the spice rub had been included – but after a few delayed bites (remember, steaming hot hoppin’ john) I jumped on board with Chef Andrés’ decision to keep the dish relatively ‘dry’. The slow roasting of the short ribs had created a delicious bark on the outside of the palm-sized portion that was compounded by the grilled layer of spices that sealed in the lasting flavor of the slow roast. It was just spicy enough to demand another bite, lingering pleasantly for a few minutes after the entire dish had been consumed. I had heard rave reviews of the short ribs, but I fully support anyone’s desire to taste-test this dish themselves. The one disappointing aspect to the dish was not found in the short ribs or the hoppin’ john, but rather in the garnish. In previous dishes, I couldn’t help but notice the tendency for microgreens to make an appearance. I can’t begrudge Andrés’ slight attempt to put some greenery on the plate. However, halfway through my short ribs, my whole mouth puckered up with the taste of salt, salt, and more salt. The microgreens on the short ribs were apparently tossed with sea salt before garnishing, and somehow all of the salt ended up on one half of the ribs. It was less a problem with the recipe and more an issue of plating – only a repeat visit will determine if it is a persistent issue. Otherwise, a completely satisfying main course.

This one small issue would not deter me from looking towards what I believe is the most important part of every meal: dessert. To accompany the desserts, I forwent my usual decaf coffee in favor of a selection from America Eats Tavern’s tea list: Dandelion Tisane. Arriving at my table in an individual teapot and steaming hot, the tisane (defined as an herbal tea not derived from tea leaves, but rather from other plant parts, flowers, roots, twigs, or even grains) smelled ever so lightly of dandelions and boasted a leafy flavor like a typical green tea. Just a little disappointed at first, I realized after finishing my first cup I enjoyed the light, refreshing taste of the tisane.

The final course, dessert, was a study of both the American love affair with sweets as well as Chef Andrés’ particular distinctive style of deconstruction. First, the deconstructed Key Lime Pie was a well -executed representation of the foams, mousses, and presentation styles that are growing in popularity in the molecular gastronomy movement. The separation of the components encourages the diner to partake in one of two approaches: eating each component by itself to savor the distinct flavor, or mix-and-matching at will to create flavor profiles that are new even within the dish itself. The pie’s tres leches meringue (lighter than a typical meringue, and slightly torched on one side), Key lime air, Key lime filling, and house-made graham cracker crumbs invited me to play around with each ‘ingredient’ of key lime pie. On the other hand, the warm Pineapple Upside Down Cake was a singular dessert, with no allowance for mucking about. When described to me as including “the best vanilla cake you’ll ever have,” of course this would have to be put to the test. With a quenelle of vanilla Chantilly cream to one side, the vanilla cake was filled and topped with a simply decadent pineapple filling and garnished with candied pineapple. The room-temperature plate (in juxtaposition to the chilled plate the Key Lime Pie was served on) kept the warm cake from cooling down while I delved into it. At first glance, I thought the filling would be heavy; it wasn’t, and in combination with the light vanilla cake the balance was struck quite nicely. Most of all, it was an interesting comparison, Andrés’ stylistic Key Lime Pie against the comfort food feel of the Pineapple Upside Down Cake. It comes down to this: the magic of deconstruction and the essence of what Andrés is capturing with his dessert creations is that sometimes the ‘down and dirty’ of desserts – whether it be the stereotypical, overly sweet American Key lime pie or the prevailing presence of canned pineapple chunks in American desserts – can be put aside or even incorporated into edible art. Both desserts were satisfying, although for completely different reasons.

Although I availed myself of a cocktail and pairing suggestions from my server, I took a few moments between courses to peruse the wine list. In addition to including mini-histories on the wine list as well, I noticed the inclusion of wines from all across the country, including smaller wineries. I’m always excited when I see a small business expanding and becoming known outside of its immediate vicinity. For example, while Virginia is well on its way to making its mark in the wine-making world, and it might surprise some to find out that New Mexico is a growing hotbed of wineries. Gruet is one such winery, located in Albuquerque. Within the last couple years, I’ve witnessed the inclusion of Gruet on more wine lists and in more wine stores – it was with pleasure that I found their Blanc de Noir included on the sparkling wine list.

Also, as one of the many slow eaters of this world, I appreciate when my eating style is taken into account by a chef and his staff. Not only were the main course plates thick, with the purpose of insulating each dish’s warmth, but the entire staff respected my progress and that one course might take longer than another. Admittedly, I was pausing at times to take photos and write notes but at no point did I feel like I was taking too long for their timing of my meal.

At America Eats Tavern, like in any other establishment, it’s a balancing act of not intruding on the diners while also doing what the restaurant has set out to do: in this case, educate American eaters about the origins of classic foods, where they’ve been, and where they could be going. It’s a worthy cause, and one I hope Chef Andrés and his collaborators at the Foundation for the National Archives will strive to continue.

Useful Links:
On Woman Around Town: “Tasting History: Classes at America Eats Tavern Offer Rare Insight Into America’s Cocktail History”
America Eats Tavern
Foundation for the National Archives
Gruet Winery