My husband and I are at José Andrés restaurant America Eats Tavern with another couple. The husband is a fabulous home chef, who I will refer to from here on out as Chef S. We are seated a few feet away from Minibar by José Andrés, which is a six-seat restaurant housed in the same building as America Eats. At Minibar, according to the website “each bite is designed to thrill the senses by pushing the limits of what we have come to expect, and what is possible from food.” Unfortunately what is possible from food is nearly impossible when it comes to getting reservations.
On the car ride down to the restaurant I check Twitter (my husband is driving). Someone has posted that they have scored a last minute Minibar reservation. Lucky person. I don’t think about this again until later in the evening.I assume that most DC diners are familiar with Chef José Andrés. He is an awarding winning chef and restaurateur. This year he was named the Nation’s Most Outstanding Chef by the James Beard Foundation. Chef Andrés does DC proud with his group of restaurants including Jaleo, Zaytinya, Oyamel, Minibar, and the temporary America Eats Tavern which was originally slated to close at the beginning of 2012 but has recently been extended through July 4, 2012.
Our first bites of food are biscuits that are served with a plate of two artisanal cheeses. A real miss. Not only are the biscuits not warm, they are outright cold. We glance longingly at Minibar.Things pick up after that. Chef S starts with shrimp ‘n’ Anson Mills grits. He admires the shrimp for its freshness, and the fact that it doesn’t taste like iodine.
|America Eats shrimp and grits|
I begin with boneless Buffalo chicken wings. They are definitely tasty and beautiful to look at. I particularly like the dot of homemade blue cheese on top, and the crunchy exterior is just right. However for $12, I would appreciate more wings.
|America Eats Buffalo wings|
My husband begins with vermicilli prepared like pudding, “the grandfather of today’s mac and cheese.” The crusty top is nice and the flavor is good, although he doesn’t find it terribly exciting.
|America Eats vermicelli prepared like pudding|
When it comes time to order from the meats and fish portion of the menu, I struggle. I am somewhat put off by the prices. Short ribs at $32, lobster Newberg at $58, and jambalaya which can only be ordered for two people at $44. No way, Jose! This would be perfect if I could order a single portion. I ponder my options.
My husband’s only choice as a non-meat, non-shellfish eater, is blackened croaker with turnip greens, although they have to hold the greens because they include pork. (It should be noted that there are plenty of options in the soups and salad portion of the menu.)
This is an impeccably fresh, perfectly prepared piece of fish, nicely accented by Paul Prudhomme’s blackened seasoning.
|America Eats blackened croaker|
Chef S and his wife each order BBQ beef short ribs with Hoppin’ John, which is black-eyed peas and rice. The meat is charred on top and deliciously tender, with a satisfying smoky flavor in the sauce.
|America Eats BBQ short ribs|
I have a difficult time selecting my main course. The server, who has a completely indifferent attitude towards us, is noting my struggle. What I really want is the jambalaya for two. He dully suggests that if I order the jambalaya I’ll have plenty to share, plus leftovers. I am encouraged by my husband and friends and so I go for it.
It is certainly a generous portion of food. But the only thing that distinguishes the dish is some finely chopped and barely cooked green peppers and onions, which adds a layer of texture. It comes with a small bowl of Cajun spices, which I sprinkle on top. My friend thinks the extra spice isn’t necessary but I don’t mind the added heat. Still there is nothing special about the dish. I am not expecting anything comparable to what is being served a few feet away from me at Minibar, but I am expecting more than this.
|America Eats jambalaya (not the entire portion)|
For dessert we order pecan pie and key lime pie. I don’t eat the pecan pie but word is that it’s a good one. The key lime pie is deconstructed and absolutely lovely to look at. What there is of it tastes good. Chef S admires the foam, which he says “holds up well.” We all agree however, that what we really want is to bite into an actual piece of pie.
|America Eats key lime pie|
America Eats Tavern has a fun atmosphere and an interesting concept. Chef S knows his food, and he’s expressing satisfaction with most of the dishes. I agree, although the jambalaya doesn’t live up to what one would expect from the nation’s most outstanding chef. What leaves our party of four a bit cold, however, is the service. It’s unenthusiastic and detached, and that puts a damper on everything. We all agree that the prices are high, but if the total experience was better we wouldn’t really mind.
I am so excited about the random meet-up with @BareNakedCritic that I leave the bag containing my leftover jambalaya under the table. I have enough for a hearty lunch remaining. I don’t realize this until we’ve been in the car for ten minutes. I am thoroughly distressed. My husband calls the restaurant and they look for the bag. They tell him it has been tossed. I get on the phone to express my dissatisfaction. How could they toss my food after only ten minutes, particularly because the server and I had discussed the leftovers during the meal. They take my number and say they’ll look again. Yeah, right.Ten minutes later someone calls and tell me they will make me a single portion of jambalaya to go if I come back down to the restaurant. I am well out of the city at this point, I tell her. I’ll be back downtown tomorrow, can I come get it then, I ask? She actually says yes. This really is above and beyond.
I return to the restaurant the next day and the manager could not have been nicer. I am guessing that it didn’t hurt that I tweeted my loss and subsequent appreciation to @AmericaEatsTvrn. At lunch on Monday, I eagerly savor every bite of the replacement jambalaya. I text my friend (wife of Chef S) about the resolution of the leftovers I left behind and she replies “Wow. That is impressive. Leaves a good taste.” Exactly.
P.S. Speaking of José Andrés, I recently had dinner at Jaleo in Bethesda and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, since I often say there is nowhere decent to dine in Bethesda, I can now eat my words. Jaleo is a great option.