By Russell Warnick
There is no doubt that José Andrés has become one of America’s greatest culinary masters. Despite his Spanish roots, he’s a chef who has certainly embraced all things American — and that rings particularly true with his new pop-up dining concept, America Eats Tavern. Partnering with the National Archives, Andrés has packed a culinary history lesson into every bite, with dishes based on traditional recipes that have been reworked and feature home-grown ingredients, America Eats is a celebration of where America has been, and where it is headed.
Running from July 4th to January 2012, America Eats coincides with a new exhibit at the National Archives Experience, What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet, here in Washington, DC. Considering the aggressive overhaul made to the now-defunct Café Atlantico, it’s hard to imagine that all this work went into creating a pop-up with a projected six-month lifespan. For such a large investment – and with all profits going to the National Archives Foundation — one might assume that Andrés and his ThinkFoodGroup might keep America Eats around for a little longer. According to Tim Carman over at the Washington Post, that might just be the case. Let’s hope so.
Whatever its eventual lifespan, America Eats now plays home to historical pieces on loan from the Archives as well as Andrés’ own collection, including a notebook that belonged to the personal chef of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Lest you anticipate an overdose of Americana, you will still find forward-thinking food in the form of molecular gastronomy at Minibar on the second floor.
Not to speak ill of Café Atlántico, but America Eats surpasses anything that came before it in its Penn Quarter location. Don’t be fooled by the menu, those hush puppies are no ordinary fried balls of cornbread, rather a deliciously crisp bite topped with caviar, and American caviar no less — as the menu keeps reminding us. For me, the West Coast-caught abalone with its smoky Bourbon sauce and butter-black peppercorn air was the highlight of the menu. A close second was the crawfish jambalaya, a rift on a recipe from Sarah Joseph Hale’s New Household Receipt-Book (1853).
The best thing about America Eats, as you probably can tell by now: Every dish has a story to tell and Andrés is eager to tell it. If you aren’t fortunate enough to catch him outside the kitchen, Andrés’ servers are just as enthused in relaying his message, a perfectly rehearsed history class upon presenting every dish. At the end of your meal, you’ll leave feeling a little more patriotic than you were when you arrived, and all the more educated on American culinary history.
America Eats Tavern can be found at 405 8th St NW, Washington, DC 20004.