When I think of the stretch of 17th Street NW between Church and R, I don't think of quality food. I think of bars, the place we get our hair cut, and Safeway. It is simply a block to walk past on the way to Mr. Yogato, or if you're lucky, Komi. Agora, taking over the old Jack's bar space, is attempting to change that perception.
While the large outdoor patio still looks like you're average 17th Street bar, the interior has gotten a chic makeover, and the bar snacks from Jack's have been replaced with an extensive Mediterranean menu.
Agora, like nearly every other new place in town, serves tapas-style small plates. Ordering at such establishments can be overwhelming, but our friendly waitress gave us a good roadmap of her favorite dishes. To start, we tried the Labneh (endive served with strained yogurt, diced apples, and walnuts). This was probably our least favorite dish of the evening because the flavors were way off balance. There was too much of the extremely tangy yogurt and not enough honey or walnuts. After a few bites we were left with a large pile of yogurt and nothing to balance it out.
Our spirits were lifted by the Chef's Borek (crispy phyllo roll filled with goat cheese, herbs, and crushed red pepper served over a tomato marmalade). A Mediterranean-style egg roll that had B licking the plate.
To sample the flat bread section of the menu, our waitress recommended the Peynirli Pide stuffed with feta and Kasar cheese and tomatoes. I really liked the texture of the bread but the cheeses were too overpowering for me. I have to give thumbs up to the bread master at Agora because this flatbread and the pillowy pita bread, served gratis to each table, were outstanding.
From the seafood section of the menu we tried the Garides Tava (sauteed shrimp, dill, lemon juice, garlic, and Raki). Google tells me that Raki is the "Turkish national drink" of anise-flavored liquor. This dish had two things working against it in my opinion: dill and anise. Both can be overpowering and they aren't my favorite flavors, so I don't think I'm the right audience for this dish. On the hot and muggy evening, however, it was nice to have something light and not drowning in heavy sauce.
My favorite dish was the Ottoman Rice with almonds, saffron, black currant, pine nuts, dry apricots, fried shallots, and dates. I swooned over the crispy/soft texture contrasts and would be perfectly happy returning to Agora and ordering this dish plus the pita bread for a carbtastic meal.
By the time the next dish came, I was ready to change into my Thanksgiving pants. I hardly had room to try the grilled filet of branzino, but the few bites I had were nicely prepared with a light drizzling of lemon juice.
Since B hasn't met a lamb dish he doesn't like, it's no surprise that he loved the charcoal grilled lamb chops. I have to admit, they did have a nice smoky flavor.
Overall, we had an enjoyable dinner at Agora. I loved sitting on the patio, watching the world go by. On 17th Street, the "world' is usually pretty interesting to watch. Agora is a welcome addition to the block and it's nice to know that there is a reliable dinner option to precede our regular trips to visit our old pal Mr. Yogato.
Second Thoughts from B
Agora seems to be the less formal, less crowded, less flashy, and less expensive version of Zaytinya. Judging by the consistent crowd and buzz of this Jose Andres/Mike Isabella built gem, this isn't a bad business model. The question in my mind was whether they could take off the fancy facade and retain the substance.
In a word, yes. If you're looking for high quality, authentic, at times creative, Mediterranean tapas, Agora is for you. In my opinion, the pita "bread basket" and borek is worth a trip. On the other hand, if you're unfamiliar with the favor profiles of Turkey and Greece, this is a great way to be introduced.
Some restaurants exist so people can eat... and by eat I mean fill your stomach. Other restaurants are created for dining, where the entire experience is a show. I think Agora is for exploring. It strikes a great balance of quality, ethnic flavors while still being approachable. In a town that loves to learn and call itself "worldly," Agora fits in beautifully.