Agua 301, you’re one salty customer


The barbacoa platter at Aqua 301. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
February 11, 2014

The new Agua 301 in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood takes its name from the contemporary Mexican restaurant’s location at 301 Water St. SE. On my maiden trip there, all I could think of was agua, which would be a selling point for the restaurant if it weren’t the result of a salt assault by almost every dish I encountered.

Did anyone taste this food before it hit my table? Both the basket of chips and the guacamole smack mostly of Morton’s. To add insult to injury, the margarita “without salt, please” shows up with a white rim of the seasoning.

Agua 301 comes from the owners of the neighborly Zest Bistro on Capitol Hill, who hired Antonio Burrell, late of Redwood in Bethesda, as their chef here. The L-shaped space brings together a soothing palette of sand, brown and taupe, overhead ribs of wood and big picture windows that pull the outside in. A backroom set off with colorful tiles and niches enclosing cacti is available for private functions. The scene is all very nice — well, except for the out-of-character club music that thumped through one early dinner.

Back to the menu, which includes chicharrones, empanadas and queso fundido among its bocaditos, or “little bites.” Whitefish seviche, despite its cilantro and lime, is flat. A main course of “Mexican spice brined” roasted chicken registers more exciting on the menu than in the mouth. Short rib mole suffers the same fate as the chips and guacamole. I get a kick out of the jalapeño slices in a bowl of posole verde at brunch, but not from the tough bites of pork that crowd the hominy soup.

The portions tilt large, which only emphasizes any flaws.

Tacos come two per order and remind us that the chef opened Masa 14, the Latin-Asian small-plates purveyor in Logan Circle. Anyone for some kimchi with their carne asada? A better impression comes by way of the tacos packed with shredded beef and chili gravy, super juicy and flanked by tasty rice and black beans.

Washington was in the middle of a cold snap on my last visit to Agua 301, a weather report picked up on by a manager. “We couldn’t give you sun and the beach,” he said, motioning outside and then to my table, “but we still brought Mexico to you.”

Cancun, maybe?

301 Water St. SE. 202-484-0301. agua301.com. Dinner entrees, $15 to $23.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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