Tom Sietsema on Agora: A restaurateur turns to Turkey for revamp

The scene on the sidewalk in front of Agora, a Mediterranean restaurant in NW Washington, D.C. August 2010
The scene on the sidewalk in front of Agora, a Mediterranean restaurant in NW Washington, D.C. August 2010 (Stacy Zarin Goldberg)
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 5, 2010

"Write what you know," authors are advised. With a slight twist, the same guidance could apply to food purveyors: Serve what you know. Few restaurateurs understand the significance of that wisdom better than Latif Guler, whose past experiences at the same address in Dupont Circle were unsatisfying dalliances with not-so-French cooking (Le Pigalle) and an American dining room that devolved into a bar scene (Jack's).

My mouth is telling me that Agora, the Turkish-themed replacement for Jack's, is just what the (food) doctor ordered. Guler is from Turkey, after all; he tapped his father, a chef from a town called Foca on the Aegean coast, to help launch the project; and he hired Ghassan Jarrouj, the former chef of the Lebanese-themed Me Jana in Arlington, to oversee Agora's kitchen. The pitas that leave its oven are airy little blimps that collapse in poofs of steam when they're torn open at the table. Put the bread to use as a scoop for the taramasalata, fluffy pink fish roe that suggests cotton candy by way of the sea. From there, just follow the advice of your server and order three or so small plates per person, to share with members of your party.

If it's not hot enough to fire a clay pot, sit outside. Agora's awning-shaded patio is among the most enticing of the many al fresco dining options in this neighborhood. Just as swell are the tall inside tables next to the front windows; the people-watching is similar, but the interior offers the bonus of climate control. Plus, the dining room has never looked better. Patrons are surrounded with brick and flattered by low lighting. A window into the kitchen captures the heads of busy cooks and the domed terra cotta hearth from which the breads come. (Despite attempts at soundproofing, Agora, which set sail in May, remains a noisy restaurant during rush hours.)

The kitchen is in love with lemon, and that's just fine by me. A citrus spark lights up the cigar-shaped dolmades, in which Swiss chard replaces the usual grape leaves, and the traditional rice-and-pine-nut filling finds room for pomegranate molasses. Lemon also reverberates in a small plate of spinach sauteed with garlic, pine nuts and crushed red peppers, a favorite among the hot mezze. There's lots of sass in an order of grilled octopus, caper berries and balsamic-glazed onions, but its presence can't rescue the chewy seafood or the heaviness of the assembly. The better catch is the swordfish kebab. Alternating with pieces of charred red bell pepper, the juicy bites of fish are dappled with minced fresh ginger and jolted with lemon juice. Shrimp enlivened with sauteed garlic and finished with butter is heady eating.

These and other dishes are brought to the table by servers who act as if they're gracious hosts at a home party rather than employees paid to bring you say, kibbe, the sweetly spiced beef-and-bulgur snack; and raki, the clear, anise-flavored spirit popular in Turkey. (Agora stocks half a dozen brands, offering them in three serving sizes.)

Manti are to Turkey what ravioli are to Italy. Be sure to squeeze in the slippery, beef-filled dumplings at Agora. Made from scratch, they're slightly smaller than marbles and draped with a garlicky yogurt sauce. The beige picture is punctuated by paprika and red pepper on top. Kofte are two-bite, super-juicy meatballs zipped up with cumin and served atop a sour cherry sauce.

The boat-shaped flatbreads (pides) are sometimes good, sometimes not. Blame goes to the underbaked crusts. Are the cooks still adjusting to that oven? The toppings, however, are fine, particularly lamb and beef, ground to a near-paste with tomatoes.

Proving that oldies tend to be goodies and shouldn't be messed with are the falafel stuffed with -- crab. The grimace on a friend's face as he bit into the fritter was the first sign all was not well. The second was his concise critique: "The falafel are fal-AWFUL." I'm also not a fan of the mussels fried in a bland and doughy beer batter.

We erased those mistakes with the help of one of the restaurant's drawing cards: wine. General manager Malia Milstead, a veteran of the excellent Source restaurant, has assembled an engaging list of wines from around the world (pinot noir from Moldova, anyone?), and except for Sunday and Monday, there's a sommelier on hand to play tour guide. But he obviously mistook me for Stephen Strasburg when he steered me to an $80 Greek label in the collection. "Got anything more recession-friendly?" I asked. His response was a 2008 Kavaklidere Yakut Okuzgozu d'Elazig from Turkey that went down like a respectable pinot noir and, at $37 a bottle, was more in keeping with the tone of the place.

Desserts are in step with the rest of the menu, which means you won't find molten chocolate cake (thank goodness). There are instead baklava, and apricots stuffed with walnuts and baked in syrup. The fruit, perched on vanilla-laced mascarpone, is a delight.

Last November, when he realized Jack's was becoming more of a place to drink than to eat, Guler brought in his partners and suggested they rethink their recipe. "Let's give [customers] food we know and make them happy." And so, for the most part, they certainly have.

Two Stars (Good)

Agora, 1527 17th St. NW. 202-332-6767

Open: Lunch weekdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday 5 p.m. to midnight; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Major credit cards.

Metro: Dupont Circle.

Prices: Small plates $5-$14.

Sound check: 77 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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