The Farm Lobby

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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 1, 2006

* 1/2 Agraria

3000 K St. NW. 202-298-0003 www.agrariarestaurant.com

Open: lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 3 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Thursday 6 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 6 to 9:30 p.m.; brunch Sunday 1:30 to 3 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, D, MC, V. No smoking. Wheelchair accessible. Parking garage. Prices: dinner appetizers, $9 to $15; entrees, $17 to $36. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $75 per person.

The new restaurant's mission statement begins as you walk in -- "From our fields to your table" -- and continues on the foyer's walls, with more feel-good phrases written in raised silver letters. Lush photographs of Midwestern farms embellish the message. And the restaurant's servers dish up more background: The venue, which opened in June at Georgetown's Washington Harbour, is brought to you by the North Dakota Farmers Union, a cooperative representing 39,000 or so farmers. Their goal is to serve fresh food grown on family farms from around the country.

It's no accident that the farm cooperative chose to open this nearly $4 million showcase in Washington, where agricultural policies can make or break small farmers. Agraria is more than a restaurant -- it's a culinary lobbying campaign.

Still, as a place to dine, Agraria wants to be taken seriously. For starters, the farm cooperative brought in Adamstein & Demetriou, one of Washington's best-known restaurant design firms, to rethink the space that used to house the Harbour Club. Derek Brown, the former sommelier at Firefly, was hired to create a clever cocktail program. (While he eventually left for greener pastures at the nearby Michel Richard Citronelle, his libations continue to be stirred and shaken at Agraria.) And when the waterfront restaurant lost its chef before it even opened, it hired a replacement with reputable Washington ties: Ricky Moore, a recruit from the Parrot Cage in Chicago, who had worked as a line cook at Galileo and the late Lespinasse.

Agraria's launch was pretty shaky. Without a captain to steer the kitchen, the American menu was intentionally kept short and generic. The lone culinary link between then and now is pastry chef Robert Underwood, a veteran of the excellent Komi in Dupont Circle, whose handiwork gave me hope that something good might eventually come of the place. At Agraria, Underwood's elegant blueberry pie, now only a lovely summer memory, and artful chocolate terrine (three layers of white, milk and bitter chocolate mousse circled in mint sauce), were rewards for having endured some unfortunate savories.

As I like to do with all new restaurants, I waited a month for the chef to settle into his new digs; Moore's own menu didn't appear until mid-July. What I find on my first visit is someone still whipping his offerings into shape. As intriguing as some of Moore's presentations are -- beef filet is served with fat french fries stacked like Lincoln Logs and a wine "ketchup," and roast chicken comes with what a waiter describes as "wine-soaked hay" -- they don't always translate into dishes you want to try again. The fries on that beef are as hard and starchy as undercooked yuca. And the straw atop the chicken is a little tumbleweed that amounts to a gimmick; my server quickly points out it isn't an edible garnish. It imparts no flavor to the chicken, which does get a needed boost from its nice buttermilk mashed potatoes and bacon-laced Swiss chard. Saving this particular evening is a perfectly pleasant dish of tender rock shrimp in a garden of sweet corn, and Underwood's desserts -- "The best part of the meal!" a server gushes -- which includes a feather-light coconut bread pudding garnished with an oval of Key lime ice cream. A dusting of lime zest over the plate underscores the tropical theme.

A week later I'm back, this time for lunch. My table near the bar hugs a curved glass wall that looks out onto the fountains. The light of day gives me the chance to appreciate the detail that has gone into what must be the most attractive place in the harbor complex right now. The seats of the chairs are either the color of straw or Granny Smith apples, subliminal reminders of Agraria's origins. The floors are smooth walnut. Lights behind the bar suggest a sunset. A flagstone fireplace here, an open kitchen there, a wine "cellar" that doubles as a party room and captures a water view: The picture is pretty and practical.

Given its location in a major tourist zone (I pitied the masses being herded into the neighboring Sequoia from their bus), Agraria offers food that is probably better than it needs to be. Tissue-thin slices of raw beef fan out on a plate whose center holds a delicate salad of arugula, shaved fennel and Parmesan. A wire mesh basket with piping-hot fried vegetables -- sliced potatoes, green tomatoes and onion -- lands on the table with a cool, herb-green sauce for dunking; too bad the cage and the dip make better impressions than the dunkees. Both the entrees are catches, though: Rosy hanger steak and fingerling potatoes make a nice twosome, while fluke sauteed in butter and bedded on sliced cucumbers, dried tomatoes and crushed hazelnuts shows a chef who likes to stretch a bit.

The lone curiosity this time is a dessert that looks as though it was hatched at the Iowa State Fair and styled by Better Homes and Gardens: a white corn pudding topped with a few pieces of caramel corn. The combination is more fun to read about than to eat.

Pasta is not the kitchen's strong suit. Goat cheese ravioli framed in dull pattypan squash and other vegetables is a ringer for something you'd pick up in the freezer case of a supermarket (and later regret). Fish -- salmon with a nice succotash, sable (black cod) swaddled in prosciutto -- gets more respect. Whoever is manning the grill knows how to flip a steak: Agraria's cowboy steak is thick and juicy, a respectable slab of grass-fed, North Dakota beef decorated with twigs of fried parsnip and shored up with an herby hash of roasted root vegetables. It's a dish with the power to draw a diner back. It's also a dish that Agraria needs more of.

The servers have clearly had the restaurant's philosophy, though not all the menu descriptions, drilled into them, and I admire their enthusiasm. When one of them overhears my companions wishing a member of the table a happy birthday, it results in a dessert plate etched in chocolate with the same greeting. Some of the staff can get carried away, though. As he places a steak knife next to my plate, a waiter jokes, "If you don't like the service, you can stab me." The commentary reminds me of what I learned in grade school: Silence can be golden.

Oddly, Agraria's wine list doesn't jibe with the message that the restaurant repeatedly pounds home in its design, on its menu and at the table. For all the flag-waving, the document touts the products of Europe over those of the United States. (Close to home, Maryland is acknowledged with a dessert riesling, but Virginia is all but dismissed as a grape-grower.)

Nice views and good desserts are rare commodities in Washington; political hot air and $35 steaks are ubiquitous. For better or worse, Agraria promotes them all.

To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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