Disappointed Review of America Eats
There apparently are others who have liked America Eats, but what follows is a very disappointed and decidedly negative review, the result of dining these this past Wednesday with a friend. Although I read some discussion boards, I am not much of an active participant, so I am not even sure why I am motivated to write this review. But I think it is due to the frustration I feel resulting from the “packaging”, the hoopla and tie-in to the National Archives exhibition, and what seems to me the flawed direction taken by a gifted transplanted Spanish chef in this enterprise.
I also want to write that I do like parts of Jose Andres’s empire. I really like Zaytinya, go there pretty regularly and always enjoy it, and when an out-of-towner wants to go something interesting to eat in DC but doesn’t want to spend a bundle, Zaytinya is my go-to place. I have eaten at Minibar twice (back when it wasn’t quite so difficult to get in) and think it is a wonderful evening of dining/entertainment. I also still enjoy going to his Jaleo in Bethesda, although I do think the quality has slipped some there.
I have tried to be civil, because, I don’t like snarky reviews and board exchanges, and am putting this review on both eGullet and Chowhound, as I find both these boards to be pretty civil. So...........
The menu was perhaps the best part of the evening, with its brief but enticing descriptions of dishes and references to people, places, things, and years (some centuries ago, some in my lifetime - your mileage may vary).
So with this setup, what might I expect Jose Andres's vision to be for the dishes put on our table?
Has he taken the traditional American dishes his menu describes and sharpened and intensified the flavors to appeal to our 21th century palates? No.
Has he taken traditional American dishes from various eras and added the cross-cultural flair of an inventive Spanish chef? No.
Has he taken traditional American dishes and added other ingredients/seasonings to achieve additional subtle complexity, whether Spanish influenced or not? No.
Has he taken traditional American dishes from various eras and reduced them to their minimal essential elements, then selected exquisite raw materials and combined them with precise technique to transform them? Unfortunately, no again.
Then what? My overall impression was one of toned-down simple dishes, which is not remotely the same as the pervious paragraph. I definitely did not get the sensation that this was an exceptionally fresh and flavorful lobster (for example, see below), cooked to the precise point of doneness to maximize that flavor, combined with the essence of the one of two complementary flavors that define the dish.
Some detail on specific dishes:
Lobster Newburg. I ordered this because I have fond memories of ordering this at Morrison's during family summer vacations on the New Jersey shore way back when it was a “fancy” dish. My primary memory of what differentiates this dish from other cream-based lobster dishes is the detectable presence of Sherry, and a brief search of recipes on the web confirms this. There was no detectable present of Sherry (an Iberian ingredient, no less) in the dish, and as described above, no sense of exquisite raw materials and precise technique either.
I also ordered Andres's version of shrimp and grits (forget the exact menu title). It did have some nice flavor, and some flavor components I cannot name. But I still prefer the versions I can get from several local Southern or Cajun restaurants, and didn't feel that the differences were giving me any new pleasures or insights..
I tried my friend’s Burgoo, a sort of stew. Again, the same sense of is that all there is?
The pineapple upside down cake was transformed physically from the classic version, but the taste was again muted without being either pure or complex, and certainly lacked the clear pineapple tang of traditional Women's Auxiliary versions of this dessert.
My friend's dessert was truly strange. It seemed to be a combination of some sense of a traditional dish combined with a bit of molecular gastronomy. The result was some taffy-like material, poured over shaved ice I think, that slowly hardened as my friend ate it, resulting near the end in a literal tug-of-war with the goop, the eating of which required one hand on the spoon and another on the plate to keep it steady. Quite strange.
Finally, I also ordered the bread basket (it was not gratis – it was $6 I think). It consisted of one Parker House roll, one slice of something like a raisin bread, and one biscuit. All were mundane, no better than what one might get for no additional charge at a range of fairly humble eating places.
One might say that the restaurant is still shaking out, but it had been open almost two and a half weeks. And it is the same chef/owner at the same site, with presumably some of the same staff, as the previous restaurant at this location (Cafe Atlántico). The restaurant may have been having a bad day, but if so it sure was a thorough-going bad day, running through all the dishes and eventually through the service too, which greatly deteriorated towards the end of the evening.
Maybe there is one other vision that Jose Andres was following. I am no food historian, and some old recipes I occasionally look it seem simple and therefore not likely to yield interesting results by my present-day standards (again, unless the raw materials and cooking techniques are exquisite). Maybe Andres is being a strictly documentarian, letting the chips fall where they may. If that is the case, then vive la difference for our standards today, and America Eats becomes a moderately expensive (prices were not all that high, but portions were not all that big either) history lesson that I don’t feel the need to repeat. But no one really knows how things tasted long ago, and I and others very much remember how the dishes within our lifetimes tasted, and the originals tasted better than his re-creations. Also, there weren't many cookbooks way back, and maybe the writers kept recipes simple so as to appeal to a wide range of persons who might not have the where-with-all to get fancy. But when I Google for recipes in the present day, I sometimes find very simple recipes that I think are less satisfying than others I find for the same ingredients/dish that include a bit more in the way of herbs or spices or flavorings or additional techniques. I wouldn't want to characterize the state of today's American food by these simple recipes of today, and I wouldn't want to do the same for years gone by either.
The bottom line for me is that there are plenty of places for me to re-visit or try for the first time in the DC area, and given this one experience I regret that I just don’t feel it is worth my time and money to try it again.
I went to America Eats with my gf and her father last night as we had to modify our original plans (Bourbon Steak). I had been curious about trying it for a while, so I was a bit excited.
Overall the food was good, but not great. Nothing remarkable, and definitely not worth it's almost $300 bill (incl. tip and a couple drinks each) though. We split an order of the hangtown fry, two beet salads and the hush puppies. Hangtown fry was ok, but I don't really like fish/seafood (but I've agreed to try it) so I wasn't really expecting to like it. Her father seemed to enjoy it. The hush puppies were really good though. Beet salad was literally just a handful of some (slightly overcooked) beets and a pile of raw shredded beets. Good, but we were hoping for some greens and some more substance. We also split the vermicelli ("mac n cheese") which was decent but nothing great. Not much of a cheesy taste. For entrees, I got the mutton (which was reported to be lamb shoulder), which was rather bland and dull. The short rib that my gf got was quite good though. Her father got the blackened croaker, which again he seemed to like, but neither my gf or I cared too much for it. Service was decent, but average.
Among the Andres restaurants, I'd rank this at the bottom. And no need to go back.
I ate at America Eats this week and found it an interesting homage to American regional cuisine. Was any of it new? No, but I'm not sure that's the point. I will agree that I found many of the favors a bit more muted than I would have expected. Our table shared plates, and liked the raw oysters, hushpuppies, crab cakes, fried green tomatoes, and shrimp and grits. All were good, but, it's true, not exceptional.
The one comment I want to make is about the maple syrup and snow dessert. This is a very traditional New England sweet. most often available at sugaring houses. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but it's fun to have the syrup solidify in the ice and turn into chewy maple candy. The America Eats version also include a lime gelee, which is not traditional, but interesting to have the sweet maple syrup together with the tart lime.