Restaurant Review: Agora
DC restaurateurs Betul and Ismail Uslu bring Turkish, Greek and Lebanese small plates to Tysons.
I walk through the door of Agora just as executive chef Ghassan Jarrouj, as if on cue, retrieves an oval flatbread teeming with shredded duck confit and bubbling mozzarella from a handsomely tiled brick oven. My response is Pavlovian.
Within minutes I’ve ordered my very own duck pide, along with a sampler of six Turkish spreads accompanied by pillows of pita bread that emerge, hot and puffed, from the same magical oven. Between sips of our cocktails, my husband and I happily scoop up dollops of labneh (strained yogurt with garlic and oregano), htipiti (roasted red peppers and feta), taramasalata (lemony, salty carp roe mousse), cacik (a tzatziki-like cucumber and yogurt dip), hummus, and smoky baba ghanoush. I’m drinking a delightful Istanbul Bey (jalapeno-infused tequila, passion fruit juice, pineapple juice and lime), although I also sneak a few tastes of his bracing Mediterranean gin and tonic, flavored with juniper berries, cucumber, bay leaf and rosemary.
This second outpost of Agora—the flagship is in Washington, D.C.’s Dupont Circle neighborhood—is in the Nouvelle apartment building in Tysons, with seating for 142 guests. That includes 12 seats at the main bar, which offers a bird’s-eye view of the cooking action, plus a second-floor bar and dining area perfect for semiprivate parties. Opened in July, the place is owned by Turkish-born husband and wife Ismail and Betul Uslu.
On first glance, it’s a beguiling space. The front room is light-filled, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, and the furnishings—many of them from Turkey—have a modern-meets-boho beach feel. Distressed white bentwood chairs, enormous brass sunburst chandeliers and a palette of goldenrod and Mediterranean blue set a dramatic scene. Large booths in the front are made to feel intimate with macramé canopies.
When considering starters (complimentary pita notwithstanding), don’t bypass the superb yellow lentil soup—a hearty potage seasoned with coriander and cumin and topped with toasted sunflower seeds and a drizzle of olive oil. Also not to be missed is the karni yarik—roasted baby eggplant crowned with spiced, ground lamb and beef, and toasted pine nuts. A tangy, garlicky yogurt sauce provides richness to this dish, perfect for fall.
Chef Jarrouj, who is Lebanese and oversees both restaurants, does a great job with kabobs of all kinds. But the meaty standout is not kabobs; it’s two Australian lamb chops marinated in pomegranate juice, vinegar, oregano, coriander, garlic and olive oil, and grilled to medium-rare succulence. Order them with Ottoman rice, a cinnamon-laced pilaf loaded with toasted almonds, dried apricots and fried onions.
The well-known Turkish dish hunkar begendi is usually made with lamb shank, but here it features braised short rib in tomato sauce, which is then served over an eggplant purée enriched with Gruyere bechamel. It’s wonderful, even if the $26 price tag for a few bites of it is not.
In the fish and seafood category, two dishes shine. Baby squid, marinated in ginger, garlic and olive oil, are simply grilled and finished with a sprinkle of Maras pepper and oregano. They’re utterly tender and vaguely sweet, with just the right amount of char, peppery heat and acid.
The seared halibut medallions, in tomato broth with shiitake mushrooms and garlic confit, are to be celebrated for their simplicity and the quality of the cooking. The fish is perfectly crisp on the outside while the inside is moist and almost buttery.
Not every mezze option sings. Pan-fried zucchini patties are pasty and need salt. An order of cold poached veal tongue slices is chewy and lacks zing, despite the smattering of red chili flakes on top. Falafel balls, served bao-like in mini pitas, are not cooked through and their tahini accompaniment could use more oomph.
Atmospherically, there are a couple of notable design flaws. Most of the tables for two are relegated to a dark back room with a low ceiling and light so scant that I had to pull out my phone’s flashlight to read the menu. During one dinner in this area, my shoulder brushed up against a plumbing pipe.
Tabletop space is also an issue. The tables are set with stunning cut glassware, but aren’t large enough to hold lots of small plates—and as this is a small plates restaurant, this quickly becomes a problem. My best advice is to order dishes a few at a time to avoid shuffling for real estate.
The service is not as polished as it could be. Where one server might excel, another is greener than an Irish politician’s tie on St. Patrick’s Day. I chalk this up partly to newness, partly to poor training. During repeat visits, no manager touched our table, which seemed especially unusual at a new restaurant.
Nevertheless, my meals generally ended on a sweet note, with orders of Turkish coffee, Tetramythos (a Greek dessert wine made from mavrodaphne black grapes) and one dessert in particular—the dried apricots stuffed with candied walnuts, lined up on mascarpone cheese and zigzagged with caramel. They call it Aegean Delight. Which is an apt description, for the most part, of a dinner date at Agora.