Walking into the dining room of America Eats Tavern is like walking into a black and white photograph. Plastered white walls and black upholstery greet you. Look around, and the matte decor merges with photographs of culinary Americana, bending their two dimensions into three. This 3-D, somewhat dreamlike, effect is accentuated by the hanging sculpture that reaches out to grab your imagination and holds it through the meal.
The Tavern is a window onto the past from the point of view of the present. It has not been designed as a Disney set that replicates restaurants of yore; the waitstaff is not dressed in period costume. What Jose Andres wants is for us to reflect rather than relive.
It is the same approach he takes with food. The idea of the Tavern is to explore the origins of American staples like mac 'n cheese and iconic dishes like Delmonico's Lobster Newberg. The copiously annotated menu transports you into the stories of how these dishes came to be. But rather than replicate the dish as it must have tasted then, Jose Andres keeps the story going, reinventing it one more time. He can do this because that is precisely what his restaurant, Minibar, is known for: taking familiar dishes and re-presenting them in a deconstructed form that accentuates their essence.
For all this conceptual elegance, the food itself is somewhat underwhelming. What works beautifully in Minibar with its one and two bite tastings does not translate as well into dinner portions, and some of Minibar's flaws -- like a tendency to over-salt -- get replicated here. Still, I did find a dish to die for: Vermont Sugar on Snow, on the dessert menu.
The scene is set with a snowy field:
Hot maple syrup is expertly poured:
The dish is ready to eat:
And as you eat, from bite to bite, the dessert continues to transform itself, from warm syrup...to soft caramel...to hard candy. A time capsule in your mouth.