Agraria allure: North Dakota comes to Georgetown waterfront

Sometimes, the epicurean gods, feeling benign, smile on you. They forgive you for taking them for granted, for not planning ahead, for failing to do what you promised.

Sometimes, the epicurean gods, feeling benign, smile on you. They forgive you for taking them for granted, for not planning ahead, for failing to do what you promised.

Such was the case with my effort to review Agraria, the glossy new $4 million restaurant on the Georgetown waterfront conceived by the North Dakota Farmers Union to showcase the products of family farmers and capture a greater share of the food dollar.  I had promised to turn in my review of the restaurant this week, but hadn’t been able to organize a dinner with members of the North Dakota delegation as planned, and I was about to leave the country.

So, in desperation, I took my wife and daughter and an out-of-town guest to dinner recently, but realized after we all ordered seafood that I had failed to sample the red-meat portion of the menu at a restaurant that gets most of its beef from North Dakota. So I invited two colleagues from The Hill to dinner Sunday at the last minute, two days before flying off to Istanbul and Paris. But alas, there was only one red-meat choice among the half dozen entrees on the menu, which changes daily and is still rather limited.

But not to worry. We arrived the same time as about 150 National Farmers Union (NFU) members from North Dakota, Minn., Wisconsin and other Midwestern states who were in town to lobby Congress and the Bush administration. They had taken over the restaurant for the evening, so I was able to interview some of the people who dreamed up this unique venture and helped finance it.

One was Robert Carlson of Minot, N.D., president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, which put up half the money for this spectacular 355-seat restaurant. (The other half comes from the National Farmers Union and many of its 40,000 members.)

“Our goal is to provide the best and freshest food from family farms all over the country, not just from North Dakota,” said Carlson. “We wanted to do it right. We hired good people and top architects [the celebrated husband-and-wife firm of Adamstein & Demetriou] because we wanted to make it successful. We’re really excited about using family farm identified food. Our consultants told us to reach for the upper-income level.”

Tom Buis, an ex-farmer from Indiana who is president of the National Farmers Union, said Agraria’s goal is to provide “better quality and better tasting food” from family farmers, ranchers and fishermen.

“It’s sort of the reversal of the McDonald’s approach where everything looks the same and tastes the same. It’s the fastest growing sector of the food business, natural organic source-verified, straight from the farm.”

Buis explained that the restaurant gets most of its produce from an organic farm cooperative in Pennsylvania, while its durum flour and beef come from North Dakota and seafood from Louisiana and Alaska.

There’s no question that Agraria, whose name is derived from the Latin word for field or land, is a spectacular addition to the D.C. dining scene. It occupies nearly 14,000 square feet with two large dining areas finished in rich walnut, hickory, cane and stone. One has a view of the open kitchen and chef’s table, and the other is situated around a dramatic curved marble-topped bar that overlooks an outdoor terrace and Washington Harbor’s splashing, illuminated fountains. There are four private dining rooms, including one with a 1,000-bottle wine cellar.

On Sunday, my two colleagues and I sat on the outdoor terrace because the Farmers Union had taken over the interior of the restaurant. It was a picture-perfect evening, with dozens of people strolling by, many of them on their way to nearby restaurants like Sequoia, Nick’s Riverside Grille, Tony and Joe’s and Cabanas, while airplanes roared over the Rosslyn skyline on their way into Reagan National, an eerie reminder of the recent fifth anniversary of 9/11.

So how is the food served up by Executive Chef Ricky Moore, who was hired after his predecessor quit a few days before the restaurant opened in June? It has flashes of brilliance, like the prosciutto-wrapped halibut with potato puree and shiitake mushrooms ($33) I chose on my first visit, or the saut