405 8th St. NW, Washington, DC 20004
Web: America Eats Tavern
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"Buffalo desperately needs chefs like José Andrés, higher-quality foods, and palate-broadening dining options. But we will never have them until we are collectively wise enough to recognize the difference between true excellence and mediocrity."
As we hit the "publish" button on the final article that will appear on Buffalo Chow, we think back one last time to why this site began, and what we hoped that it would achieve. Our hope was to share the best of Western New York's foods with the rest of the world, and to bring the world's best foods back to Buffalo - inspiring better dining for everyone. History will judge whether we helped whet the local appetite for better food, or whether we left the community unchanged, but we think we made a mark with this site. And so our last article is designed to end our mission on a high note: it is a look at what one person has achieved by blending his passions for great food and experimentation with a talent for creating welcoming, accessible dining experiences. The person is Chef José Andrés, deserving 2011 winner of the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef of the Year Award, and we look below at all of his current Washington, D.C. restaurants - inspirations to cooks and restauranteurs of every culture, skill level, and culinary disposition.
Unlike every other article we have previously published, this one is not written from a place of complete impartiality, and we acknowledge that openly. From our perspective, Chef Andrés's Washington, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles restaurants have become beacons of light in a sea of culinary mediocrity, simultaneously bringing authentic recipes to broader audiences and spotlighting wonderfully exciting new ideas that most often succeed in changing diners' perspectives on old standards. Our admiration for Spanish Chef Andrés, who worked years ago for the brilliant Ferran Adrià at El Bulli and taught alongside him at Harvard last semester, has grown beyond the boundaries of what we'd call "objective" reporting. Both as a disseminator of Adrià's ideas here in America and as an outstanding chef in his own right, Andrés has changed our lives, the way we think of food, and our standards for excellence in dining. We share him with you because of what he has shared with us.
Last week, we had the opportunity to meet Chef Andrés in Washington, visit the "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" exhibit he served as Chief Culinary Advisor for at the National Archives, and dine multiple times at all of his restaurants in Washington - notably including the just-opened America Eats Tavern. In an age of celebrity chefs who toss out catchphrases like dashes of salt, and pitch foods that are merely "bammed" up versions of yesterday's well-worn recipes, he is a true original - soft spoken, kind, and passionate about improving on historical renditions of food. Here are some of the things you should know about what Chef Andrés and his company ThinkFoodGroup have been doing; we recommend that you follow his frequently-updated Twitter account to see what he'll be doing next.
What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?
Housed in the same building as the original Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? - The Government's Effect on the American Diet offers visitors a 90-minute education in the history of American food evolution, health, and safety. Though it's designed to appeal to adults of all ages, the free exhibition will be of particular interest to younger people unfamiliar with many of the topics, which vary from amusing to deadly serious: legal battles over margarine, attempts to vitaminize donuts, government offerings of free vegetable seeds to promote healthy, diverse plant growth, and the establishment of government standards and agencies to institutionalize food safety. Once you've seen the discussions of tainted meats and poisonous foods that were sold at one time in this country, any broad-based objections you may have to government regulation will quickly fade away.
Also discussed are some of the favorite meals of presidents, and intriguingly, the beginning of American interest in Asian foods: Richard Nixon's visit to China and use of chopsticks while trying Peking Duck are cited as having opened this country's imagination to authentic Chinese cuisine in 1972, before which chop suey was said to be as close to Chinese as most Americans had come. And yet the exhibit doesn't treat the government's involvement in the American diet as perfect; portions of the exhibit suggest an earlier overemphasis on butter, for instance - for a time, it was listed in a separate seventh food group, a demonstration how food education has evolved over time.
If you can't travel to Washington for the exhibit, the National Archives sells a book with much of the content inside. Developed by curator Alice D. Kamps, it's titled What's Cooking, Uncle Sam? - The Government's Effect on the American Diet - Records from the National Archives, and includes a foreword by José Andrés. A softcover version sells for $20; the hardcover version sells for $30. The exhibit is open through January 3, 2012.
America Eats Tavern
When we planned our trip to Washington, two of our goals were to visit José Andrés's newest restaurant - a six-month "pop-up" called America Eats Tavern, opened on July 4 as a complement to the Uncle Sam exhibit - as well as one of his most famous venues, the exclusive six-seat Minibar, which serves multi-course modernist meals in the style of El Bulli. Unfortunately, as America Eats Tavern had unexpectedly replaced Café Atlántico, the extremely popular three-story restaurant in which Minibar was hidden away, Andrés quietly shuttered Minibar for several months; it is currently said to be reopening as a six-seater in September, then expanding to accommodate 18 or 20 people per seating in early 2012, subsuming the former Café Atlántico and America Eats Tavern space. Staffers in several Andrés restaurants suggested that Café Atlántico will likely return in 2012, but be relocated to Puerto Rico or another Caribbean destination, seemingly as a further expansion of Chef Andrés' growing empire.
When we first heard that Atlántico was going to be replaced by America Eats Tavern, we were concerned. Fusion foods, contemporary reimaginations of past recipes, and "new American" cuisines are so easy to screw up that America Eats could have been a complete bust - or merely an asterisk on Andrés' ThinkFoodGroup empire, given its stated six-month lifespan. But it was, in fact, very close to great. More thought and labor was put into the historically-derived cocktails menu alone than most restaurants spend on their entire endeavors: for instance, the vodka, ginger beer and lime drink Moscow Mule is served in a specially branded copper mug, alongside classic American punches - including a favorite of Benjamin Franklin, shown here. Better yet, "classic classics" such as the absinthe-hinted Corpse Reviver No. 2 and gin/chartreuse Last Word are offered to reacquaint customers with unique and historic favorites. In the interest of full disclosure, we will note at this point that we spent a lot of money trying foods and drinks at these restaurants - seriously, a lot - and a comparatively small number of items at America Eats were comped, but this in no way impacted our evaluations of the restaurant.
Over the course of three visits to America Eats Tavern, we sampled quite a bit of the menu, and loved almost everything we tried. As Buffalonians, we were prepared to chafe at the reimagined Buffalo Wings, four boneless pieces of meat flavored with tabasco - not Frank's - and topped with a light bleu cheese cream. But they were wonderful, the meat cooked to utter tenderness with sous vide, and the skin separately crisped before reassembly. It was a pure expression of modernist technique, executed well enough to make even the most devoted fans of the original dish reconsider their preconceptions.
Other dishes similarly offered Andrés' takes on American classics: macaroni and cheese was reimagined as Vermicelli Prepared Like Pudding, with thin noodles, golden-browned cheese, and mushrooms on the sides to provide contrasts. A stunning take on Peanut Soup saw a cold cream of extracted peanuts poured atop crushed nuts in a bowl with streaks of mace and peanut butter, leaving the lucky recipient to enhance the soup with extra intensity or spice as desired. And a sous vide version of New York Cheesecake, delivered as a silky pile of utterly soft cheese atop crumbled graham crackers and raspberries, was equally marvelous. Almost everything else we tried was just as impressive, and we could easily understand why some have called for America Eats Tavern to remain open past its pop-up, six-month deadline. It's American food, done better.
Not everything was perfect. A huge Bison Tomahawk Steak, brought intact to the table before being split into two halves in the kitchen, was a little overcooked and underwhelming, particularly for its asking price. America Eats' broad array of Catsups - a well-publicized nod to the large, historically forgotten array of sweet and savory flavors that once were offered as alternatives to tomato ketchup - were rarely paired with dishes, leaving diners to decide whether or not to spend $3 a pop on spiceberry, oyster, and blueberry sauces that might or might not improve the already well-designed plates. And the service, which was truly stellar on all three of our visits, was apparently much improved from the restaurant's earlier days when some servers fumbled with the new menu and couldn't explain the sometimes obscure items. Our servers were awesome - friendly, well-informed, and prompt, exemplifying the standards of service set by ThinkFoodGroup restaurants.
While dining at another of Andrés' restaurants, we overheard fellow patrons opining that America Eats Tavern was rapidly becoming great after a challenging first few weeks, but that it would truly come into its own only shortly before it closed. This struck us as an underappreciated concern about recently trendy pop-up restaurants - places designed to have limited lifespans - and one that may destabilize dining in some very serious ways going forward. Unlike traditional restaurants, which trade on presumptions of continued service and consistency over time, pop-ups are stripped of the responsibility of long-term satisfaction, the benefits of relative permanence, and the improvements that come after extended periods of service. In the wrong hands, they will be a convenient excuse to move on from weak ideas; in the right hands, they will disappear before having the impact that they would have made over time.
It is thus the ultimate expression of our appreciation for America Eats Tavern to say that in a country packed with American restaurants, it is one of the only American restaurants that will sadden us with its closing. Should it fold on schedule, it really should reopen elsewhere, intact, as an ongoing lesson in both our culinary traditions and their proper reimagination. American chefs could learn a lot from how a man from Spain reinvigorated an often stagnant cuisine, using our traditions as inspiration rather than as an excuse for duplication. If you cook, or if you love American food, you should visit this restaurant before it disappears.
Discussed previously in several Buffalo Chow articles, Andrés's famous Spanish tapas restaurant Jaleo is now a collection of four different locations - three in Washington, and one in Las Vegas. It is also home to the famous white sangria that we've raved about for years.1
Rather than rehashing our discussion of Jaleo, which has been credited with introducing Americans to the concept of small plate dining, we'll simply post a small collection of photos from just a few items we sampled on this trip - Lomo Iberico de Bellota Con Pan Con Tamate (Iberico pork loin with rustic bread, alioli, and mojo verde), Calamares En Su Tinta (the most tender squid in black ink one could ever imagine), Arroz de Pato 'Jean-Louis Palladin' (duck atop confit rice with a foie gras cream sauce), Berenjenas a la Miel (eggplant with honey), the Ensalada de Judias Verdes (warm green bean salad with apricots) and Gambas al Ajillo (sauteed shrimp with garlic).
Jaleo is also the only Andrés restaurant in D.C. that currently serves José's Gin & Tonic, an outstanding version of the drink that famously inspired us to begin our ice ball experiments. To this day, we follow and love this recipe, which is one of a number that expanded our understanding of how differences in seemingly basic ingredients - the brand of tonic, the type of gin - could deepen and improve the flavor of cocktails. It's a testament to the reality that you get what you pay for.
Most readers point will find this point comically obvious, but given that Buffalo lacks for true Spanish dining options, we feel obliged to spell it out anyway: Spanish food is completely distinct from Mexican food. And Oyamel, a single José Andrés restaurant located near the original location of Jaleo, is the first place where ThinkFoodGroup's team began to serve Mexican cuisine - part of the inspiration behind the newer half-Mexican, half-Chinese China Poblano we visited in Las Vegas. Oyamel was the restaurant where Andrés's team debuted surprisingly awesome items such as Chapulines grasshopper tacos, served alongside more conventional pork, chicken, and mushroom versions, all compelling in their own ways. And if you visit Oyamel and stick to Mexican dishes you've heard about, you'll also experience some of the best tamales you'll ever taste, including the Tamale Verde shown here, a moist and lightly spicy log of cornmeal and chicken, as well as wonderfully light ceviches made with tuna, red snapper, or yellowtail.
On our first visit to Oyamel some time ago, we weren't totally won over - it is steps above typical Mexican restaurants, for sure, but the dishes didn't strike us as different or as addictive as Jaleo's. Yet over the course of subsequent visits, we discovered what really works about the place: it's packed with sophisticated comfort foods, elegant takes on dishes that could otherwise be served casually and less impressively. The so-called "Gaspacho" Estilo Morelia was on the surface a mere fruit salad, the name evoking Spanish cold soup, yet the delicate balance of grated queso fresco and epazote atop jicama, pineapple, and mango elevated the bowl to art. Nopalitos, a salad with baby cactus and tomatoes in lime dressing, was refreshing and tart on historically hot and humid Washington summer days. And desserts such as the Jericalla de Chocolate con Maracuya - sorbet, crumbled, and Oaxacan custard forms of chocolate with passionfruit gelatin inside - similarly did so much more than they might, challenging a tongue to handle switches of texture while hitting it with different strong flavors.
And last but not least, it is at Oyamel that cocktails and sangrias come to be enhanced beyond your wildest past dreams. Like China Poblano, Oyamel serves the Sangre y Fuego, a delicious fiery red sangria accented with chili peppers and orange rind, and what are here known as the Oyamel and Pomegranate Oyamel, margaritas topped with salt air foam - the ideal way to guarantee that every sip starts with a light hint of salt before the sweet mix of Siembra Azul Blanco, Luxardo Triplum, and lime juice hits your tongue. Oyamel is also home to the Sangrado Corazon, a cocktail that uses ice balls to gradually release gentle hibiscus flavor as you sip, as well as the Mexican Gin and Tonic, a version that swaps the lemon and juniper berries of Jaleo's version for cilantro, orange peel, and micro-marigolds, as well as switching up both the types of gin and tonic - a hugely different and savory take on the traditionally semi-sweet drink. As with Jaleo, it's easy to spend a lot of cash exploring the wide variety of cocktails and small plates at Oyamel, but the experience certainly bears repeating.
The story with Zaytinya - the brightest and most open of Andrés's venues, akin to an Apple Store lined with bottles of olive oil - is different from the rest of the ThinkFoodGroup restaurants. Surprisingly weak in the cocktail department and possessing a menu that Western New York fans of Greek food would find substantially familiar, Zaytinya applies the small plates concept to Mediterranean cuisine.
Each meal starts with sets of three balloon-like hot pitas that arrive as snacks, subsequently accompanied by unusually pristine, fresh renditions of classic spreads and delicate half- or quarter-entrees. Here, a compressed watermelon salad with feta and kalamata olives (Karpuzi me Feta) is elevated to near art with rich colors and contrastingly sweet-salty flavors; similarly, the simple eggplant spread Baba Ghannouge arrives smooth and clean with a pool of olive oil on top, sometimes appearing dotted with pomegranate seeds.
It is at Zaytinya that you'll find the Octopus Santorin and numerous other fish dishes - black cod, scallops, crab, wild halibut and caviar - that are commonly missing from Greek places in Western New York. Here, you can get the pan-flamed saganaki plate of ouzo and kefalograviera cheese that no one around here seems to do right, as well as interesting takes on well-worn classics such as Spanakopita, which arrives almost like an egg roll of phyllo dough, spinach, and cheese - moister on the inside than any brick of the same item elsewhere. Yet other phyllo dishes, including the special Lamb Kleftiko, emerge equally tender and savory inside, with crispy shells, and often atop little dollops of yogurt.
Despite its attractive decor and numerous menu choices, Zaytinya is possibly the least amazing of Andrés's restaurants today, taking a back seat to Oyamel and ranking markedly behind both Jaleo and America Eats Tavern in forward-thinking offerings. Across several visits, we found the prep to be less impressive as at the other restaurants, as sous vide appears to be less commonly used in this kitchen, and the seafood dishes we tried here were generally seared or grilled through - nowhere near as tender as similar offerings were at Jaleo or Oyamel. Yet as we've said on each of our visits, for all of its faults, Zaytinya would be the best Mediterranean place in Buffalo by a landslide if it was here, offering superior takes on virtually every Greek dish we've sampled in Western New York. Changes in the kitchen and the bar here wouldn't hurt, but there's still a lot to be learned and experienced from at this restaurant as it is.
At the end of our second visit to America Eats Tavern, we had the opportunity to speak with Chef José Andrés, and there were a few interesting points that we took away from the discussion.
- On Children in Restaurants. Andrés noted that he has three daughters, and said that has raised them from a young age to eat adult foods from the adult menus at restaurants rather than pandering to them with kids' menus. None of his restaurants have kids' menus, but most of them (save for D.C.'s Minibar, Vegas's é by José Andrés, and L.A.'s Saam/The Bazaar) make accommodations for well-behaved children, and have been consistently kind to families in our experiences there.
- El Bulli. We spoke with Andrés right before he left for Spain to participate in the very last meal at El Bulli, where he worked years ago, and where his daughters were given the honor of helping to serve the final meal. The Chef suggested that it's still somewhat surprising to him that recipes originating at El Bulli and his own restaurants 15 years ago are still considered "new" by some people. Knowing how it took Andrés's own American restaurants to bring El Bulli's famous liquid olives to U.S. customers in martinis, say nothing of other innovations, we explained to him that it was his (and Ferran Adrià's) work - their expansion and popularity - that would ultimately change the world of dining.
- On His Chinese Restaurant, And Further Expansion. Knowing that China Poblano was said to be Chef Andrés's gentle initial step before opening a full-fledged Chinese restaurant - a long-time dream - we asked him whether it would be happening soon. Laughing, he said something that we heard echoed by a number of other people at his restaurants during our visits: that many balls were in the air at the moment, and that it was a matter of picking which ones to focus on. He didn't elaborate on the timetable for Minibar's reopening, the permanence of America Eats Tavern, the relocation of Café Atlántico, or the debut of a wholly Chinese place; all of these and other possibilities were clearly still being discussed. But they're also all known opportunities for ThinkFoodGroup; in each case, it's merely a question of whether or when they happen.
Our trip to Washington and plans to revisit Chef Andrés' restaurants were set in stone before we decided to shutter Buffalo Chow; it would have been easiest for us to just completely walk away from the site without sharing any of these experiences with our readers. But we felt strongly that providing you with a further window into how spectacular dining can be - and is, only an hour away by plane - would be a fitting end to our efforts here. At just one of the José Andrés restaurants, American culinary history is currently being presented and reconsidered in ways unthinkable to most Western New Yorkers; at others, Spanish, Mexican, and Mediterranean small plates and cocktails are expanding diners' palates on a daily basis. In addressing a reader's criticisms of a different location of Jaleo, the Washington Post's respected food critic Tom Sietsema recently noted that he dines at the main D.C. location "more often than any other restaurant in town," a profound statement given how many options Washingtonians have to choose from. This is a serious vote of confidence in Chef Andrés, and deservedly so, given how strong most of his restaurants are.
As with all things, the importance and quality of these places may well change over time, just as the reviews on this site represent snapshots of restaurants taken when we visited them - what will happen in the future remains as uncertain as ever. And that's true for us, as well; our goal is solely to be good parents to our children. Having guided Buffalo Chow through its three-year run, we now end the site hoping for only three things: that Western New York expands beyond its current and sometimes parochial conceptions of food, drink, and dining; that we can embrace and foster the cultural diversity necessary to grow the next generation of great restaurants here; and finally, that Buffalonians will move past traditional obsessions with cheap meals and "big" plates of food to focus instead on quality and value for the dollar. Buffalo desperately needs chefs like José Andrés, higher-quality foods, and palate-broadening dining options. But we will never have them until we are collectively wise enough to recognize the difference between true excellence and mediocrity.
- Jeremy + Christina Horwitz
1 As a final note, try the white sangria. And use this little trick we developed to improve your results: one day in advance of everything else, place the peaches, strawberries, and mint leaves in your measuring cup with the grape juice. There will be a dramatic enhancement in the white sangria's flavor - the only improvement we have ever made upon one of the chef's spectacular recipes, and the sweetest way we could think of to end this site's run. Cheers!