In advance of our family trip to Washington, DC I asked my cocktail blogging friends for a good restaurant with a great bar to which I could reasonably take our kids as well. Matt, of A Jigger of Blog, suggested, among other locations, Agraria in Georgetown. I’d just like to say thanks, Matt.
Agraria Farmers and Fishers (its full name) is located in a beautiful modern development, right on the waterfront in Georgetown, alongside a number of other promising looking eateries. There is a lot of outdoor seating with a great view, and the inside view is nearly as good. When the weather is nice, the glass front of the restaurant opens up to let in the breeze. Since the weather was beastly the week we were in Washington, the doors remained blessedly closed. The decor is clean and minimalist, with dark woods and rough stone walls. Water is brought to your table in a heavy glass milk bottle and served in sturdy low tumblers. The staff wears jeans and plaid shirts in keeping with Agraria’s commitment to fresh from the source, unprocessed ingredients, and somewhat inexplicable connection to the North Dakota Farmers’ Union.
We ended up visiting twice, in the week we were in Washington.
My main focus here will be on the bar, of course, but I do want to say a few things about the food as well. The menu is very extensive and varied. Our dishes each time were delicious, with the El Diablo Pizza and the Crispy Skin Duck Breast deserving special mention. I’ve got a thing for duck, and the folks at Agraria do it very well. While they don’t have a kids’ menu, my girls were more than content with the chicken tenders and accompanying onion rings. The portions were reasonably sized, and more impressively, very reasonably priced.
I do have to mention one more menu item, since it’s the sort of thing that drives Google traffic. Behold my (rather blurry) picture of Agraria’s Chocolate-Dipped Bacon Lollipops. That’s bacon. Dipped in savory Mexican chocolate. On a stick. As an appetizer. America is a great country.
Now, what really caught my eye when Matt mentioned Agaria was the fact that they have introduced a new, Tiki-themed bar menu. I confess I was briefly disappointed when we arrived and saw exactly zero things the general public would associate with a Tiki bar. But I had already seen the cocktail menu, so on we went.
Agraria is not exclusively a Tiki drink emporium. The menu features such classics as the Aviation and a Corpse Reviver, as well as good selections of beer and wine. They do not offer commercial soft drinks, instead offering their own house-made ginger ales, sodas, and iced teas, etc.
If you are leery of ceramic vessels, hand-painted with topless dancing girls, or garnishes that tower precariouly above your libation, fear not at Agraria. My Monkey Gland arrived in the funky-looking champagne saucer that doubles as a cocktail glass there, with only a delicate sliver of lemon resting on the surface. It was delicious.
Maggi drank Gin Rickeys, in honor of being in Washington, DC. They were made with Bluecoat gin and just a spoonful of Maraschino liqueur, a combination I’ve now quite happily adopted myself.
When our dinner was over, Maggi took the girls back to the hotel, and I transferred myself over to the bar where Agraria’s bar chief, Jon Arroyo, was working. He just wanted to go home, but instead stayed a good long while, providing me with a wealth of information, as well as a few more delicious cocktails.
My first question was why a Tiki-heavy menu in a restaurant that is decorated like a farmhouse (if the farmer came from Park Avenue and 76th St.)? Jon’s first answer was that real, classic, Tiki drinks are great cocktails, and he wanted to use them. Moreover, Tiki relies heavily on fresh juices, and exotic syrups and tinctures that need to be hand-crafted and fresh. This sort of ingredient is very much in tune with Agraria’s unprocessed, close to the farm theme.
As I watched Jon and his guys work, I noticed several excellent practices, chief among which was measuring everything. You can’t get proportions perfect, or consistent, in a complex drink unless you measure. But it takes a lot of effort to produce cocktails like this, and I asked Jon about the practicalities. He told me that he was focused on demonstrating that you can profitably operate a premium bar, serving true classic cocktails, in a high volume restaurant. More power to him, but how?
He focuses on training his people, I believe the word he used was,
relentlessly. And not just in techniques and recipes, but in skills such as how to produce multiple drinks simultaneously, so that they are all completed at the same time and placed before the customers at the peak of perfection. It was like listening to a software engineer discuss multi-threading, except I was a lot more interested in what Jon was producing than I am in running Excel and Final Cut Pro at the same time.
And the fact is, Jon and one other bartender took care of a full bar of patrons, and all the servers, while the restaurant was pretty full, without a hitch. And while I’m praising his management chops, when I came back two days later, and he wasn’t there, the bar sang with the same brisk efficiency, all while whipping out complex Sinapore Sling, after Pisco Sour, after Hurricane. No matter what field, the only way to find out if a manager is worth a damn is to send him or her on vacation….
By the way, there is no Mai Tai on the menu, but the one I had on our second visit was the best I’ve enjoyed in a commercial establishment.
In his non-mangerial hat, Jon calls himself a
Spirit Sommelier. As if to demonstrate, he offered me a Pancho Villa. Like a great wine sommelier, he made a production of preparing the drink, flaming orange peel and all, discussed what to look for, and what was causing those elements to work the way they did. It was like a good wine-tasting, but with 80% less bullshit. (The remaining 20% is kinda like bitters, the drink is bland without it.) The Pancho Villa is a complex drink that evolves as you drink it. I thought it was delicious, but the sort of cocktail that you need to pay attention to to really enjoy, rather than just casually sip.
It was a fascinating experience to sit and talk cocktails with Jon, and a pleasant one to partake of the produce of his operation. Agraria is one heckuva nice restaurant, with a fabulous watering hole at its center.