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The owners of Agraria Restaurant, one of Georgetown’s most interesting and high-end new restaurants, stopped in for a visit recently. But they were not the usual assortment of behind-the-scenes investors. The owners who inspected Agraria’s handsome space in the Washington Harbour complex are members of the North Dakota Farmers Union. That’s right — a group of family farmers have invested upward of $4 million to introduce jaded Washingtonians to the virtues of fresh farm products. “Goose bumps, a little bit,” was the reaction of one owner, according to a North Dakota TV station’s report on their visit. “Awesome concept,” said another. Indeed, it is an awesome concept to give farmers a piece of the action all the way across the food chain, so to speak. With walls adorned with arty photos of wheat fields and bales of hay, Agraria is a reminder that the food we eat was not always processed and shrink-wrapped. Agraria is unquestionably worth a visit. As general manager Brian Scott told me after I visited, “This is a little more than a restaurant. Our owners are family farmers, and we want their products to be celebrated.” But if that’s the case, I hope it won’t be downright unpatriotic to wonder, in my critic’s role, why the food here is so fussy and fancy, instead of truly showcasing its freshness and simplicity. I’m not suggesting Agraria should honor its roots by serving covered dishes and corn on the cob on picnic tables. But on the other hand, given its proud provenance, should the fare really be so indistinguishable from most other “eclectic American” restaurants around town? Consider some of the starters on the menu: a salad with baby arugula, fennel, red onions, and a citrus vinaigrette; and smoked trout with tufts of fris�e lettuce, an odd butternut-squash slaw, and caviar dressing. I’m guessing those concoctions don’t grace many North Dakota tables (especially at $11 and $10 each), and I mean that as a compliment to North Dakotans. They are dishes that could have been served almost anywhere. Other appetizers seemed more genuine. A rich crimini-mushroom soup showed off the earthiness of the mushroom. A romaine-lettuce salad nicely relocated the Caesar salad into the Midwest by adding hard-cooked eggs, radishes, and a creamy herb dressing. Among the entrees, the small piece of wild Alaskan salmon had a light but unnecessary breading and was overcooked and dry. The salmon was accompanied by a dash of succotash that showed some farmstead pride, but at $29 the dish was more expensive than it deserved to be. A roasted half-chicken was also honest enough, but it was cluttered up with some hard-to-discern sides, including what appeared to be a small stack of singed hay. I had a rib-eye steak that our mercurial waiter proudly announced was actually from North Dakota. (Not everything at Agraria is from North Dakota, by the way — most of it originates at small farm operations closer by.) The steak was flavorful, but piled on top were some bits of pepper, potatoes, and greens. The steamy interaction between the hot steak and the veggies on top seemed to make the steak soggy, lacking the crust that would have made it superb. Why not let the steak shine on its own? The pasta too, we learned, was made from North Dakota durum wheat, but my mother was disappointed by the ravioli filled with bland butternut squash. Desserts at $9 were also disturbing concoctions, the oddest of which was — get this — a chocolate-covered sticky bun accompanied by a small cup of Kona coffee milkshake. Another promised white peaches. I thought that maybe this would show off a farm product, but instead, the peach was finely diced in a small puddle of sauce that surrounded a shot-glass-size cone of panna cotta. But what really convinced me that something is missing at Agraria was how my dessert was presented. More than once, my wife had reminded the waiter that it was my birthday that night. The only recognition of that forgettable milestone turned out to be the words “Happy Birthday” piped in icing onto the rim of my dessert plate. No candle, no gaggle of waiters singing “Happy Birthday,” nothing that transmitted a farm-friendly welcome. As they say in North Dakota, “Uff da!”
Legal Times Supreme Court correspondent Tony Mauro has also reviewed restaurants for nearly 30 years. He turned 56 at Agraria and can be contacted at [email protected].

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