The Tasting Panel magazine

October 2018

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34  /  the tasting panel  /  october 2018 WHERE WE'RE A popular dish at the Sweet Home Café in the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the pan-roasted rainbow trout with cornbread, mustard green stuffing, and hazelnut brown butter. The Warm Embrace of Sweet Home Café T he hottest ticket in Washington, D.C.—aside from an open seat on the Supreme Court—is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Since it opened in September 2016, the venue has maintained what's often a months-long waiting list for admission. Deservedly so, as it's a brilliant, deeply affecting journey through the black experience in America, traversing from the devastating impacts of slavery on the bottom floors to a timeline of cultural milestones on the top floors. Separating the two worlds on the middle floor is a tribute to the joys of soul food via the Sweet Home Café, a cafeteria divided into four culinary regions. The museum somewhat collegiately refers to them as the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, the North States, and the Western Range, which could also be described as the Deep South, New Orleans, the Low Country (and beyond), and Texas. As guests push their trays from one region to another, they can ponder the pleasures of specials like the chicken and waffles served on Sundays (and apparently eaten by just about everyone in the Café). Last season's Summer Fish Fry, meanwhile, featured cornmeal-dusted catfish, fried shrimp, and bay-spiced crab cakes served with hush puppies, sweet corn, fries, celery-seed coleslaw, potato salad, and tomato-and-watermelon salad. These dishes are delicious enough to tempt you away from the usual fare . . . or perhaps not. It's easier said than done with a menu featuring dishes like a Caribbean-style pepper pot; a barbeque beef brisket sand- wich on a sweet potato bun served with a charred peach and jalapeno chutney; and gulf shrimp and stone-ground grits from the Creole Coast. The latter, made using acclaimed artisanal grits from Anson Mills in Columbia, South Carolina, comes with smoked-tomato butter, caramel- ized leeks, and crispy-tasso cured pork. The venue's bold exploration of ingredients and cooking techniques adds unlikely twists to standard soul-food staples, as seen with the sweet pea tendril salad served with shaved radishes, the hazelnut brown butter on the pan-roasted rainbow trout, and the sauce gribiche on the smoked haddock. Yet after taking a bite of the slow-cooked collard greens with cornbread sticks and potlikker, even the staunchest com- fort-food hardliners will find it's hardly a stretch to accept the presence of cranberry-walnut vinaigrette on their roast sweet potatoes. There's praline bread pudding and key-lime cupcakes for dessert, and you can make the tea as sweet as you want it to be. This is culinary history: old and new, classic and modern. Considering it unfolds in a room of long tables with counters and stools lining two walls to evoke the 1960 sit-ins at Woolworth's, that history is certainly felt—and tasted—with each bite visitors take. by Merrill Shindler The cafe serves Southern classics like gulf shrimp and stone- ground grits sourced from Anson Mills in South Carolina. P H O TO S C O U R T ES Y OF N MA A H C

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