Food - Glutton at Large: Cafe Agora
Revisiting an old favorite in a new spaceMonday May 19, 2014 04:00 am EDT
Accessibility. That is what sets the large new location of Cafe Agora apart from its original location a mile down the road. It used to be that grabbing some of the long-standing Buckhead restaurant’s fantastic food was a matter of parking karma. If you’d been good, your reward was one of the coveted few spots. Otherwise, you might just end up somewhere else for lunch. But the new freestanding location has its own small parking lot, which is a game changer. Getting there early during lunch service is advisable because the restaurant is its busiest around noon.
It took a long time to transform the former Thai Silk space. Months turned into a year and, still, the sign in front of the white stucco building with a turquoise blue tiled roof said: “Coming soon.” When the sign was switched over to “Now open!” at the end of February, the restaurant was immediately filled with its longtime regulars hungry for a platter of colorful and filling Turkish food.
The layout of the restaurant is still evolving. Right now, you order at the counter at the end of the grand blue backlit bar bursting with liquor bottles. After receiving a number, you can head outside to the covered patio or the dining room and wait for your food to be delivered. The dining room’s white stucco walls are painted with murals made to look as if someone broke through the wall to reveal the shores of some faraway Mediterranean beach town.
It’s impossible to talk about Agora without mentioning its owner Al Ozelci. He is the heart and soul of the operation. At the Buckhead location — there’s also a small Midtown store — you’ll likely cross paths with Ozelci, who always greets you with a smile of vague recognition whether he knows you or not. He calls everyone “my friend,” which might sound cheesy at first, but he absolutely means it. This is Al’s house and he wants to feed you. In fact, whether it is your first or 17th time at Agora, there is a very good chance Ozelci will actually (literally) feed you. Sometimes a forkful of creamy carrot salad, others a piece of the restaurant’s honeyed baklava pinched between his olive-skinned fingers.
For now, the menu is unchanged because, according to Ozelci, they opened in such a hurry. He plans to flesh out the menu, add a drink list, and offer tableside service in the future. He calls it a work in progress and eventually he may even do a late-night menu.
Little has changed about the food’s quality. You can still get the quintessential platter of assorted meze, including hummus, tabouli, creamy roasted eggplant, enormous white beans in a vinegary dressing, and other daily specials. It comes in two sizes with a basket of flatbread cut into neat little squares. Crunchy balls of chickpea falafel are creamy inside and the accompanying yogurt sauce cuts the fried-food fat. You could almost make a meal out of the appetizers. But save room for the meat.
Warm gyros stuffed with shaved lamb and beef, lettuce, and tangy yogurt sauce also come in two sizes. The regular is enough for smaller appetites, but the large size is often seen in the hands of the many construction workers and seemingly single men that make up the majority of the lunch crowd. A platter of mixed grilled meats overflows with grilled chicken, ground lamb, and sliced gyro meat with pale yellow rice and vinegary Greek-style salad with hot bread arranged to look like it could be a spaceship out of Star Wars. A generous helping of char-grilled chicken piled on large bed of salad with crunchy vegetables and crowned with a piece of flatbread looks like an upturned sandwich.
For now, while the other cook is being trained, Ozelci’s wife is manning the kitchen. While she has successfully maintained the quality of Cafe Agora’s food, they are in the process of hiring and training cooks. Her most memorable contribution is an ethereal coconut cake with the slightest hint of amaretto. It’s moist and has a generous amount of shredded coconut embedded in the frosting. Just be forewarned: If you order it, Al will probably come by and tell you how much he likes the cake and brag about his wife’s cooking. You are at his house after all.