By Alexander Bolton - 03/10/11 10:21 PM EST
The 17th Street strip between R and P streets, NW, has been known more as a party and happy-hour scene than a culinary destination.
But a turning point came last May when President Obama took first lady Michelle Obama to Komi, the Mediterranean star on 17th Street just north of P.
That same month, Agora opened its doors a block away, and all of a sudden, the stretch between Q and P became a hotspot for fashionable Mediterranean cooking — making Church Street something akin to the Bosporus in Istanbul.
The name is appropriate for this restaurant; it’s just the place for a group to share the many delicious small plates and not get blown away by the bill after swallowing the final morsel of baklava.
The bare brick walls, arch motifs and rustic lighting fixtures give the décor a vaguely Persian feel, but the flat-screen TV and exposed ductwork remind diners that they’re at a trendy Washington restaurant. The soundproof padding tacked to the underside of the tables keeps noise levels within a reasonable range.
Most of the dishes are served as mezes, the Greek and Turkish word for snack or appetizer.
The common complaint at small-plates restaurants is that you end up spending a lot of money and leave without feeling entirely full. That’s not the case at Agora, where the intense flavors and the whirlwind service that keeps the plates coming create the impression of eating from a cornucopia.
The meal begins with baskets of fresh steaming pitas that resemble deflated footballs and release a satisfying puff of aroma when you tear them to sample the olive tapenade, made with olive oil bottled on the family farm of Agora’s founder, Latif Guler, who grew up in the small town of Foca, Turkey.
The best way to start the meal is to order one or several of the spreads, such as the cured roe or the cacik, the rich mixture of startlingly fresh yogurt, cucumber, dill and garlic that is a Turkish staple.
Then move to the selection of cheeses, several of which are served in a sweet-and-savory style. My pick was the Hellim from Cyprus, a pan-seared whole goat’s milk cheese served with fresh thyme and fig jam. The pleasing consistency of the cheese — slightly crumbly, not too dry or salty — nicely matches the sweet, gritty jam.
The cold mezes include wild-catch grilled octopus served with parsley, caper berries and cippolini onions; stuffed eggplant with onions, tomatoes and pine nuts; traditional dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with rice and pine nuts; and tuna sashimi with wasabi and a ginger soy vinaigrette, perhaps the menu’s most notable foray into international fusion.
The octopus was the only disappointment of the evening, and the only dish my companions didn’t polish off quickly. While not chewy, it tasted as though it might have sat on the boat awhile.
The stuffed eggplant, however, made up for the octopus. Light, fresh and delicately flavored, it tasted like summer, according to one member of the dinner group.
The menu’s hot-vegetables section features three standouts: the chef’s borek, a crispy phyllo roll filled with goat cheese, crushed red pepper and tomato marmalade; large, steamed asparagus; and falafel.
The borek was the only dish we ordered twice, and I was grateful for the decision, because the combination of light, soft dough and sweet, tangy goat cheese did not survive long at our table.
The asparagus was flavorful and perfectly al dente, a nice touch of green freshness for the palate — although one of my companions who lived two years in Turkey noted the only asparagus she ever saw in that country came from a can.
The falafel didn’t win raves from my tablemates, but on an earlier visit, I became convinced that it’s the best in the city. The crunchy, seared shell complements the slightly succulent interior. My second taste of it didn’t disappoint.
I would vote the kitchen’s seafood offerings as its best. The swordfish kebab, the pan-seared scallops with tamarind molasses and saffron yogurt sauce and the beer-battered fried mussels were all outstanding.
One friend who frequently complains about the difficulty of finding properly cooked swordfish pronounced the kebab perfect. It dripped with juicy flavor that resonated with the accompanying grilled red peppers.
Another who taught English at a Turkish university said the mussels reminded her of those the vendors sell on little sticks in the streets of Ankara.
There was no doubt about the scallops’ freshness, their subtle sweetness in complete harmony with the molasses yogurt sauce.
Agora offers an array of meat dishes, many of which are the hallmarks of Turkish cuisine, such as manti, the beef-stuffed pasta in yogurt sauce; kibbeh, a ground beef and bulgur dumpling; kofte, ground lamb and beef meatballs; and, my personal favorite, hunkar begendi, braised lamb shank over an eggplant-and-gruyere cheese puree. The last is Turkey’s verson of beef bourguignon, which is to say that it’s mouth-wateringly tender.
The yaprak dolma, grape leaves stuffed with rice, lamb and beef and topped with yogurt and red pepper sauce, deserve special mention. I’ve never been a big fan of dolma, but like Garth Brooks or Ronald Reagan, this dish has major crossover appeal.
Agora also offers authentic desserts that finish a meal with a sweet glow. The best is the kadayif, mats of pastry skeins layered on soft cream cheese and drizzled with honey. Share it with someone special — it tastes like love itself.
The kadayif is best with Turkish coffee that comes in four styles: with no sugar, some sugar, a medium amount of sweetness or very, very sweet. Afterward, turn the grounds out onto your saucer. You can read your fortune from the pattern it leaves on the inside of the cup. And if you’ve just finished a meal at Agora, the grounds will likely tell you you’re having a lucky night.