When Ghassan Jarrouj says the thought of a “new place and a new kitchen” lured him out of retirement this summer to open Agora in McLean, what the chef really means is, as he puts it, “I was a little bit bored.”
Three years after parting ways with the original Middle Eastern restaurant of the same name in Dupont Circle, which he helped open in 2010, the Lebanese native is once again frying falafel, grilling octopus and baking pide for the dining public. It appears as if he’s glad to be out of the house. Since mid-July, Jarrouj has taken a mere two days off, an impressive streak for anyone, let alone a chef who turns 70 in January.
He has me at hummus. Dusted with paprika, the dip is smooth from the chickpeas having been cooked to near mush over a slow fire. The best way to eat it is on a platter with five other spreads: tart labneh, roasted red peppers and feta cheese, strained yogurt bulked up with cucumber and mint (cacik), a pink whip of carp roe shot through with lemon, and baba ghanouj. The last, featuring eggplant cooked over an open flame, is so fabulously smoky, it’s a wonder the fire department isn’t called every time it’s paraded through the dining room. Eighteen dollars buys you the party package, along with freshly baked pita, puffed up with steam. You’ll spend the first few seconds tossing the hot bread from one hand to the other.
As at just about every new restaurant, the idea is to — all together now, you know the drill! — “share everything,” a server says as he takes diners on an unnecessary tour of the menu. “We suggest three or so dishes per person,” he says, echoing the introductory words of hundreds of his peers across the region. Not to be snarky, but can you imagine if other forms of entertainment treated their audiences like so many restaurants do? If every play opened with the news that there would be an Act 1 followed by an intermission then Act 2? Very few menus need explaining. And truth be told, some that do ought to be rewritten.
But I digress. The service here is otherwise on the mark. Dishes are described and delivered with enthusiasm, and if you’re lucky, your waiter might even take your valet stub outside while you’re paying your check to lessen the wait for your wheels.
Agora unfolds on the ground floor of a fancy residential building, Nouvelle Apartments, away from much of the consumer action in Tysons. To attract customers, Ismail Uslu, who owns the newcomer with his wife, Betul, offers that valet parking for nothing. Wise move. The couple have also created an eye-catching interior, dressed almost exclusively with details imported from Turkey, from carved wooden screens and hanging mosaic lamps to the iconic blue beads believed to ward off the evil eye, a talisman visitors to Istanbul can’t escape in the markets. The space is lovely, and if you’re the type of diner who likes to watch your meal being cooked, make a beeline for the stools fronting the kitchen counter. (It’s a role reversal for the chef, who remembers spying from an attic above his family’s kitchen when his mother, a frequent hostess, entertained.)
Did anyone run the furniture through its paces? The chairs are uncomfortable and the tables too small once the “three or so dishes per person” start showing up. The most appealing destination is one of a handful of cabana-style tables up front that fit as many as seven people. (Just be sure to reserve the popular real estate in advance.) No one seems to want to sit on the mezzanine, at least in its dim recesses. Twice, I watched as groups were led upstairs, then declined the seating, which feels unlike the English translation for Agora: “a gathering place for friends,” says Uslu.
Let’s eat! The prize of the cold mezze, aside from the colorful spreads, is poached veal tongue, rosy slices of which are glossed with olive oil and freckled with Maras pepper, bright red and warm on the tongue. A fan of organ meats, Jarrouj is thinking of running sweetbreads as a special. Yes, please. I also like the grape leaves wrapped around rice, parsley, mint and pine nuts and served room temperature, as in Lebanon. Lemon juice and pomegranate molasses give the dolmades a tang that lingers.
Some like their mezze hot. Agora has its thumb-size lamb sausages, garnished with shoestring potatoes, made to its specifications by a butcher. Clove imparts a distinctive warmth. Haloumi is seared and sliced into lengths, each firm finger of cheese improved with a dusting of thyme, the crunch of slivered almonds and maybe a bit of the accompanying fig jam.
Jarrouj, who oversees a staff of more than 20, has been cooking for 50 years now. He has the Middle Eastern thing down pat. Cooked in small batches, the falafel shatter in the mouth. Kibbe are my preferred way to eat meatballs. Phyllo rolled around molten cheese and spinach has some of us — okay, just me — mulling a Groucho Marx impression with the hot cigars. Instead, we just drag the crisp borek through some housemade tomato marmalade, again and again, until only stubs remain.
Turkey has a fine ambassador in the pide, or flatbread. What’s not to like about an oval raft paved with melted mozzarella and other toppings? Shredded duck confit with fig balsamic is too sweet for my taste. It also smells like a Cinnabon. Better is the baked boat scattered with spicy red beef sausage.
Go for the grilled branzino instead of the pan-seared halibut, overcooked when I tried it. The former, speckled with dill, reclines on toasted multigrain bread and proves a simple pleasure. Lamb chops marinated in sumac and oregano are fine; chicken sparked with earthy za’atar is more my speed.
Should you desire something sweet, apricots stuffed with walnuts, streaked with caramel and lined up on mascarpone is the best dessert strategy.
Is Jarrouj happy to be back in the kitchen? More often than not, it tastes like he is, and the chef’s got a handsome “office” to boot. McLean should hope he stays in the workplace for the foreseeable future.
Agora (Good) 7911 Westpark Dr., McLean. 703-663-8737. agoratysons.com. Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner daily, brunch Saturday and Sunday. Prices: Dinner mezze and dishes to share, $5.50 to $48 (seafood for two). Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: No barriers at the entrance. Ground-floor restrooms are wheelchair-friendly.