Consider, if you will, the American immigrant experience that is celebrated in museums and history books. The poor, tired, huddled masses yearning to be free, packed themselves on to steamships pointed at port cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and New Orleans, seeking a better life.
Now fast forward to today. You don’t have to go much farther than Fox News or MSNBC to see the regard in which we hold the current generation of immigrants. So, let’s rewind to 1991, which is important as any year, but particularly so to this review. After years of training in his home nation of Spain, José Andrés emigrates to the United States and goes to work in the kitchen at New York’s El Dorado Petit. Two years later, he moves to Washington, D.C. and helms the kitchen at Jaleo, where he brings the Spanish tradition of tapas to his adopted homeland. He opens a second Jaleo in Bethesda in 2001, followed by mezze restaurant Zaytinya in 2002. Then, minibar, two more Jaleos, restaurants in Las Vegas, Miami, Puerto Rico, Mexico City and California, two Asian-Spanish fusion concepts. There were James Beard Foundation awards, television appearances, a PBS series, cookbooks, and, in 2013, he and his wife became American citizens.
In June 2014, Andrés drew back the curtain on America Eats Tavern. Version 2.0 of this concept (it debuted in 2011 in partnership with the Foundation for the National Archive to showcase long-forgotten American dishes) has taken up permanent residence adjacent to guest registration at the Tysons Galleria Ritz-Carlton hotel. Andrés pays tribute to his adopted country. Dishes are presented on the menu with an origination date and place, and many are accompanied with a story of how they came to be. The preamble to the Constitution of the United States frames the open-air kitchen that faces the main dining room. Red, white and blue adorn every corner of the restaurant, and your check is presented in a classic American novel (ours was delivered in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island).
We arrived midday on a Saturday and were presented with a brunch menu. I was slightly disappointed as I had hoped to try the lunch/dinner offerings, but that feeling would disappear quickly. Regardless of meal, America Eats is proud of its commitment to local farmers, utilizing heritage-breed pork, grass-fed angus, local dairy, including regional cheeses. Even the beer selection is regional, with a menu of labels from Dogfish Head, Alewerks and DC Brau.
The four-page brunch menu includes selections from the raw bar, a country ham tasting menu, eggs, sandwiches, and selections from the lunch/dinner menu. The primary differences come in the apps, which are decidedly more breakfast driven. For instance, the two glazed doughnuts served fresh from the fryer with a sour cream glaze, served with homemade blackberry jam. These are the light airy doughnuts you remember from the days when bakeries made their own doughnuts from batter mixed in the store, not the prefab hockey pucks prepared a commissary and shipped in to your local TimDunkinKrispyHortonsKreme. The jam, while wonderful, seemed like sensory overkill when consuming the fried cakes. My friend Mary Kate and I couldn’t make up our minds as to what we should order next, instead opting for a second round when our chatty, affable waiter suggested the off-menu doughnut holes. Six little spheres of dough stuffed with homemade caramel sauce were devoured without much discussion, as were the griddle-pressed biscuits that appeared on the table at some point during the lunch.
The limited, but stellar, raw bar offered littleneck clams and fresh oysters on the half-shell, lobster, and crab. Mary Kate, who never had raw shellfish before, did not enjoy the milder Chesapeake Bay oyster that she tried but said that the clam tasted just like the air at Five Points, the town in Maine where her family vacations annually. I thought the Chesapeakes and Hama Hama oysters were fine, and was highly impressed with the presentation of mignonette. This vinegar and shallot dressing is typically served with a small spoon for drizzling. Not at America Eats. No, mignonette is served in an eyedropper for precise dispensing on to each half shell.
Having veered into seafood, we opted to stay in the ocean. My companion was largely impressed with the shrimp and king crab cocktail, presented Mexican-style, with the fish swimming in a homemade cocktail sauce. She was hoping for the more traditional presentation of a seafood cocktail, but still found the wherewithal to finish the large bowlful of seafood.
Andrés offers two lobster rolls on the menu. The first is the traditional Maine presentation created in 1910, with chilled lobster salad on a warm roll. José’s lobster roll, which I ordered, was a buttered roll overflowing with lobster meat that had been tossed in mayo espuma (or foam), allowing the sweet, butter-poached lobster meat to do the work. The roll dripped butter and lobster, offering Andrés’ touch to the New England classic. Sandwiches, including the lobster roll, are served with Saratoga chips, a nod to the original American potato chip.
Dessert, which was not possible for either of us after our two-hour brunch and endless stream of drinks, also echoes classic American cuisine. A selection of pies top the menu, but it is the chocolate cake made with Martha Washington’s original recipe that was truly missed.
Not unlike Andrés’ other restaurants, everything at America Eats is thoughtout in great detail. The just-so crinkles on the paper underneath the doughnuts, and the napkin folded over to look like an envelope, and the crisp blue oxford dress shirts worn by its staff.
Having dined at Zaytinya and Jaleo, this was not the restaurant I was expecting. The dishes were highly detailed and beautifully constructed, but this is a departure from Andrés’ small plate style. While we treated the menu as if it were the Americanized Jaleo, America Eats Tavern is screaming to be a tapas-style restaurant featuring traditional and classic American food. But, this is not for me to decide. José Andrés is an extremely successful restaurateur and I’m a lowly food blogger. But, here’s what I can say. America Eats Tavern is Andrés’ love letter to his adopted home, celebrating the nation that has given him so much, and to which he has given his all. It’s not the prototypical José Andrés restaurant, but then again, José Andrés is not the prototypical American success story.
America Eats Tavern is located at 1700 Tysons Blvd. inside The Ritz-Carlton hotel at Tysons Galleria in McLean, Va. Reservations are available on the restaurant website. Brunch for two with drinks was $152 before tip.