Southwest flair in rustic surroundings at East Hill's Agava Restaurant

February 23, 2016

We always love when an Ithaca area eatery becomes a comfortable favorite, and this week the 14850 Dining Report is on east hill visiting Agava Restaurant, a "southwest-inspired" restaurant which opened about four years ago.

In the former home of Coyote Loco and Olivia, Agava has deservedly won a loyal following with wood-fired-oven flatbreads, fish and seafood, tacos and burgers, and salads and steaks, with lots of fresh local ingredients all around.

Several seating areas include the large main room, with space for a couple of large groups, the bar area with a few cocktail tables and some comfortable seating, and a spacious patio that fills up fast on nice days. The wood-fired oven is in one corner of the dining room, with a few bar seats offering a ring-side view of the action.

The dinner menu includes some excellent meal-size salads, great with blackened salmon, marinated tofu, even cornmeal-fried oysters. A fine lamb burger with pine nuts and beets, or the Richard, blackened local grass-fed beef with buffalo blue, New York cheddar, and jalapeño. Or a beautiful black bean burger, served with poblano and lime crema. A recent addition is a spicy and crispy plate of fried chicken with chipotle honey, plus a heap of fries, and the specials list often includes an inspired approach to a pork chop, steak, or seafood dish.

Flatbreads from the wood-fired oven include the Beat It, with roasted beets and goat cheese; and the Pig & Fig, featuring braised pork, fig brown butter, and buffalo bleu cheese. The Rita, with mozzarella, basil, and charred tomato, pairs nicely with an Agava margarita for one of their best happy hour specials: just $12. We also love the bacon and egg flatbread with red onion. 

That breakfasty flatbread's an easy option at brunch, but don't forget to check out the omelet of the day, such as smoked salmon, capers, and goat cheese; an excellent huevos rancheros; or the crabby patty, a crisp crabcake with fried eggs and charred tomato hollandaise over braised greens. There's even a simple bacon and eggs plate. With ingredients from local sources like Autumn's Harvest Farm, such dishes may well be the best breakfast you've had in ages. The bold coffee blend is from another local source, Forty Weight Coffee.

Don't miss the tacos, served three to a plate on soft corn tortillas, like the Slow Rider, with braised beef and cabbage slaw, and the Hunky Dory, chorizo-spiced crispy tofu and potato. As you may have gathered, it's easy to enjoy a vegetarian or even vegan and gluten-free meal at Agava. Just double-check with your server to make sure there aren't any unexpected ingredients in what you're contemplating ordering.

The bar offers local wines and beers, from nearby Six Mile Creek, Sheldrake Point, and Keuka Lake Vineyards, Ithaca Beer and Southern Tier, as well as a creative cocktail list that begins with a tasty and generous $7 margarita. The "charred" margarita adds a smokier tequila and smoked salt on the rim, and bartenders are always inventing new drinks like a minty version of the John Daly, already a boozy adaptation of an Arnold Palmer.

Owner Gregar Brous, of the Brous & Mehaffey clan known in town for its Collegetown Bagels and Ithaca Bakery chain, has used Agava to showcase the region's tremendous local food ecosystem, while also paying homage to this neighborhood. It's hard to remember after a couple of decades of restaurants have come and gone here, but this building is the East Ithaca railway depot, and in the last renovation, Agava's owners have done a beautiful job of combining reclaimed wood and fresh paint to evoke a little of the building's age. 

They're open from lunch to late-night, with brunch on Saturday and Sunday and live music several times a month. Plan on spending $10-25 per person on a meal. Find Agava at 381 Pine Tree Road next to East Hill Plaza and at agavarestaurant.com, or call 607-319-4366 and tell them you heard about them here.

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