THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED.
Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 Top 100, Washington Post 2010 Dining Guide
Neighborhood: Downtown, Metro Center
Needing to both use up a LivingSocial deal before it expired, and to catch up with Official Friend of DCWD Madison before she jetted off to Africa for work (and thus miss our Restaurant Week reservation), the two of us headed out to gastropub Againn for dinner.
There seems to be two groups of people who know about Againn: people who have been there and know it's pronounced "a-gwenn," and people who are confused about what restaurant you're talking about until you spell it out for them (OH! Againn!). Me, my education about pronunciation came from Official Friend of DCWD Jax, who used to bartend there, and had always encouraged me to come for the food. An appearance in the Washingtonian's new list, and the aforementioned coupon cemented it.
Againn fits into the mold of contemporary gastropub: dark brown and dim, clean straight lines everywhere from the booths to the tiling, and a decor which can be described as circles and squares. Hanging incandescent orange light bulbs juxtaposed against orderly chocolate brown and black wood paneling. Globe light fixtures above the bar next to white brick-esque tiling.
Upon walking in, you immediately hit two bars: the raw bar on your left, and the regular bar to your right, demonstrating its hipness with small pedestals for bar tables and a back-lit bar showcasing the multitude of whiskeys the bar has (it is an Irish gastropub after all). Along the full windows on 11th St are the two-tops, with full booths making up the center aisle of the dining area, and the larger tables and private dining room in the back by the wall-length wine cooler.
Lastly, I've only been to Againn twice now (the time before was St. Patrick's Day, so hardly the most representative, but still), but it always seems loud and energetic and packed; our wait time for our walk-in was 45 minutes, and even people with reservations had to wait. This meant our waiter was a little harried and couldn't give us as much attention until the restaurant started dying down around 9:00. Something to think about.
Madison's a pescetarian, but was lured into dinner at Againn by the promise of its mussels, which she had eaten before. Regular readers of the blog will know that mussels are a not-secret vice of mine, and so I was probably twice as excited as she was, especially after I saw what the mussels came in on the menu: organic cider, madras curry, creme fraiche. Oh god, could you combine three flavors I love more? These turned out to be amazing; in fact, the only downside that we didn't have enough bread to sop up the juices afterwards. A sense of warmth from the cider, a little bit of a spice from the curry, and that overall smooth pleasant feeling I get anytime I have creme fraiche: perfect notes.
Her second dish was a beetroot salad with naval orange, pickled fennel, ricotta salata, spiced walnuts, and honey dressing. I didn't have any of it, so I can't comment on flavor, but the plating was good, with beautiful colors. So it certainly looked appetizing.
Alongside it, she ordered some brussels sprouts with bacon on the side (pescetarian after all, but eating dinner with a carnivore). She liked them very much, but like most times, I wished they were just a little bit softer. Still, the "bacon" here was good, more like thick cut cubes of cured pork.
For my part, I went the philosophical opposite of Madison, and started off with a sort-of stew of braised honeycomb tripe, housemade chorizo, soffrito, fried bread crumbs, and mint. Texturally, this dish was to die for, with the almost-melting tripe contrasting with the brilliant crunch of the bread crumbs. Mostly, it was the savoriness of the dish that won me over, with its rich flavor warming me up on the cold night. I could eat another ten bowls of this.
As an entree, I had the pork belly and crackling, plated on top of Anson Mills white grits, mustard greens, and roasted turnips in a country ham broth. The first time I had grits, I was like, I don't understand what the big deal is. These grits were FANTASTIC, almost overshadowing the pork belly (almost). Smooth, rich, and added a great dimension to the dish. The piece of note here is that Againn does not like when they say pork belly; unlike other places that will give you something vaguely bacon-like in quality, this is the belly of the belly, and so you'll get a lot of fat. I love that texture and flavor, but I know people who are vehemently opposed to it (on account of the lack of meat, or their cholesterol, or what have you). All the same, much like the other dishes, this meal brought with it a heartiness and a warmth that only good cooking and care can give you.
What's the word I'm looking for here? Surprising? Delicious? Perfect-for-this-weather? Wonderfully seasonal? They all apply here, but I'll just go with a je ne sais quoi short of awesome.
Food Rating: **** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Suits Scene to Party in the USA
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Head over to Souvenir City, buy two tacky I Heart DC t-shirts and take a tour of the closest museum pretending to be tourists (an Official Co-Writer of DCWD CC favorite).