- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

“From our fields to your table” sounds like Agraria may be a vegetarian restaurant, but it’s not.

Conceived by the North Dakota Farmers Union to promote family farmers and capture a larger share of the country’s food dollars, the sleek, stylish restaurant in the Washington Harbour is indeed owned by family farmers.

Farmers naturally like animals: they’re delicious. The kitchen, under the auspices of executive chef Ricky Moore, uses fresh local produce as well as meats from throughout the country. The menu credits the source of the ingredients of each dish.

The concept and presentation of origin of ingredients may be a bit pretentious, but the results at Agraria recall Hall of Fame fastballer Dizzy Dean’s famous axiom: ‘It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.’

Agraria’s menu is limited — as opposed to the wine list, which is extensive, well selected, and offers good bottles in all price ranges. At lunch and dinner, there are six to eight appetizers and an equal number of main courses. Some dishes on the menu change daily, so what’s discussed here may not be available on any given day. Almost everything that comes out of the kitchen will be fresh and well prepared.

On a recent evening, the choice of first courses included a romaine salad, an arugula salad, beef carpaccio, a shrimp ragout, steamed mussels topped with fried flounder, a plate of mixed charcuterie, and mushroom soup. We chose the romaine and the soup.

The romaine salad is a lovely starter, a welcome change from the ubiquitous Caesar. The leaves are fresh and crisp; the salad is adorned with paper-thin slices of red radishes and small triangles of cucumber, adding a slight crunch and a bit of color to the romaine. The dressing is a creamy herb sauce that all but demands mopping up the remaining bits with a slice of the warm challah-like white bread, which comes with rounds of sweet butter.

The mushroom soup is almost a puree, perfumed with a rich, earthy mushroom flavor. A drizzle of balsamic vinegar adds a touch of tartness and chopped walnuts a little crunch, both excellent additions to the smooth soup. The bits of blue cheese added to the soup are too strong for the mushroom flavor and shock rather than enhance the soup.

Main courses offered several choices of fish dishes, two beef preparations, — a 28-ounce rib chop and a filet — roast chicken, and two pasta dishes. No duck, game or vegetable plates. Considering the limited number of main plates, it’s a curious decision to have two beef and two pasta dishes and not branch out.

One of the pastas is a wonderful plate of large, robust ravioli filled with a creamy puree of butternut squash and topped with tiny squares of steamed squash. The dish is finished with an amaretto butter, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese and a decoration of two or three deep-fried sage leaves. Simple, delicious and the essence of comfort food. The second pasta is fettuccine with a sauce of mixed mushrooms and rosemary.

Sea scallops are excellent: four plump scallops in a lovely pink sauce with a touch of spice, and decorated with sage leaves and a tiny dice of tomatoes. The menu calls for rissole potatoes, but nothing resembling crisp potatoes appeared on the plate. The scallops rested on a round that could have been a mushy potato or squash but the round was tasteless and certainly not a crisp potato. Despite this absence, the scallops were tender, mild and sauteed to just a touch of crisp exterior while the interior remains moist.

Halibut is wrapped in prosciutto and served with a potato puree and mushroom fricassee. Salmon is pan-roasted and served on succotash. And the chicken is accompanied by string beans and bacon. It all looks pretty and tastes as good as it looks.

Desserts are tempting and change frequently. Chocolate terrine or cake, ice creams and seasonal fruits in varying combinations all appear at various times. We tried a coconut bread pudding with ice cream. The pudding was nicely creamy but a shade too sweet; so, too, the ice cream with its drizzle of caramelized honey.

Agraria’s lunch menu reflects dinner in its starters: mostly salads, beef carpaccio and mussels. Aside from a grilled hamburger, served with mixed greens and fingerling potatoes, and a chicken sandwich with tomato, bacon and spiced cheese, there are no sandwiches or entree salads on the lunch menu.

Salmon, pan-seared halibut and another fish are lunchtime options, as is a hanger steak and the two pastas, although the ravioli and fettuccine are prepared differently than at dinner. For example, the ravioli may be filled with goat cheese and basil and the fettuccine tossed with pesto.

Agraria is a beauty, designed by the architecture firm of Adamstein and Demetriou. The long, clean lines of the interior design reflect the spirit behind the restaurant. The large space is divided into a bar-lounge area and a dining area in the rear. Near the bar, attractive wooden tables are lined up the length of the restaurant next to French windows that open sideways onto a terrace with tables for outdoor dining, overlooking the large fountain in the center of the Washington Harbour courtyard. In fine weather, the breeze from the open windows is pleasant. In cold weather, there’s a small fireplace in a corner.

The rear white-tablecloth section has a view of the kitchen. It is entered through a marvelous floor-to-ceiling slatted wooden door that, like the French windows, slides silently sideways. The menu is the same wherever a diner chooses to sit.

RESTAURANT: Agraria, 3000 K St. NW; 202/298-0003

HOURS: Lunch noon to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday and Sunday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, until 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and until 9:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters $9 to $13 (lunch), $9 to $15 (dinner); main courses $14 to $23 (lunch), $17 to $67 (dinner); desserts $9

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Paid parking in Washington Harbour lot; scarce metered street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Foggy Bottom/GWU (Orange and Blue lines)

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