Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Agua 301 Food Review

Don't look now, but the Navy Yard area is fast becoming the next Penn Quarter. A year ago, even the most die-hard Nationals fan would argue that thinking; but the arrival of Agua 301 (on the heels of nearby Bluejacket) gives notice that Yards Park is happening... even without baseball.

It may be hard to get to, at first (don't use Google Maps) but once you realize it's right along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, a mere block and a half from the Navy Yard Metro on the Green Line, Agua 301 should become your favorite Mexican restaurant in all of DC (sorry Rosa Mexicano, it was swell while it lasted.) Why the change of heart... especially after just one visit? It's all in the food.

Enter head chef Antonio Burrell, fresh off successful stints at Bethesda's Redwood and Masa 14, who delivers a vibrant and scrumptious menu to the table, along with a warm smile and an unyielding desire to feed you (and feed you well.) His menu comes stacked with familiar favorites (ceviches, empanadas, tacos) and a guacamole of the day (with bacon & cotija cheese, served rajas style) that's so creamy and rich... it begs to be added to the everyday rotation.

Of course, before you get to the food... you have to marvel at Agua's gorgeous setting. It's not huge (it seats 106, with patio seating coming soon) but few dining areas provide as much space between tables: No need to worry about anyone listening in to your conversation. It's modern & romantic... the kind of place that's sure to make a good impression on date night. Be sure to get a seat with a view of the fountains outside... This place is gonna be killer when the weather gets warmer. Also, don't be shy to arrive early: This way, you can mozy up to the bar and order one of 60 different tequilas (yes, I said 60!) or an affordable non-alcoholic Agua Fresca for just $3.50 with hibiscus, watermelon and pineapple. Yum.

Carnitas Tacos (courtesy of Agua 301)

OK, back to the food. Be sure to treat yourself to an aforementioned guacamole; but don't pass on Burrell's Coctel de Camarones ceviche with shrimp, cucumber, pico de gallo and paper-thin radishes that come bathed in a horseradish-flavored tomato water that literally cooks the shrimp right in the bowl. Bonus points for beautiful presentation. I'm not a salad man; but that means more room for tacos (chicken, fish, pork, steak and a veggie option with mushrooms.) I devoured Agua's Pork Belly al Pastor with crispy pork belly and a hot, pineapple habanero salsa (2 for $7.) You could literally feast on any (or all) of the seven Taco options, and walk away satisfied.

Just tacos? Perhaps next time, since I was just getting warmed up last night. Agua 301 offers 10 different Bocaditos, tiny bites meant to go with a drink or two. I wanted to order Fried Pork Chicharrones in an avocado & tomatilla salsa; but didn't want to "double-dip." I went instead for one of two Empanada options, Empanada de Jaiba (jumbo crabmeat, corn, truffle oil and cream cheese.) I'm picky when it comes to empanadas; and although I liked its crusty exterior, the combination of crab and cream cheese proved too soft for my liking. I'd prefer a heartier pork or shrimp, but that's me. They also offer a version with butternut squash, corn salsa, cotija cheese, guajillo chile puree (sounds great) and roasted tomatoes... something to remember for the future.

Short Rib Mole Chichilo

Most nights, I'd be stuffed... but with Christmas Eve only hours away; and my inevitable New Year's diet just around the corner, I decided to press on and order an entree. This meant deciding between an Adobo Roasted Chicken, dressed in adobe barbecue sauce with black beans and a Short Rib Mole Chichilo (braised short ribs and a creamy mash/polenta with a generous drizzle of chichilo mole and a fresh winter veggie medley.) I opted for the latter, and rejoiced at a daringly simple plate of supple goodness. The ribs were incredibly tender, and combined with the rich chichilo... easily the night's best bite. The vegetables were cooked perfectly and made up for a cold, over-sweetened mash. Kudos for leaving the plate almost half-empty: It looked gorgeous.

At this point, I was ready to raise the white flag of fullness... just before our friendly server brought us the dessert menu. Four options awaited us, including an Apple Empanada that would have been above & beyond, given what I'd already consumed. My dining companion and I decided to split a combination of Churros (with a Mexican chocolate fondue, and whipped cream) and a seasonal Pumpkin Flan that came with apple-raisin salsa and the most amazing gingerbread I've ever had. All desserts run $6.50 and are perfect for sharing. Did I mention they make a mean cup of java too?

I'm usually not this impressed with a restaurant, especially only two days removed from its opening night; but Agua 301 wowed me with several dishes, amidst only two slight negatives. Combine great food with a stylish (yet warm) atmosphere, and it's no wonder I can't wait to go back for brunch (available for New Year's Day and weekends beyond.)

Click here for Agua 301's dinner menu, and here for a map/directions (GPS users beware: Double check your results.) Agua 301 is open for dinner Sunday through Wednesday (5-10:00 PM) and Thursday through Saturday (5-11:00 PM.) Lunch hours (M-F, 11-3) start soon. Brunch/lunch on the weekends (10:30-3.)