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Zest Vets Go Modern Mexican at Aqua 301

David E. Bonior cast his last vote in the House of Representatives more than a decade ago.

(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)
(Warren Rojas/CQ Roll Call)

But the Michigan Democrat remains a player in Washington thanks to a family-run catalog of neighborhood restaurants that’s poised to widen with the debut of Aqua 301.

The new Mexican-themed restaurant (301 Water St. SE), which is taking up residence in the bustling Yards Park complex, will open to the public for dinner on Dec. 21.

Much like its predecessor, Zest American Bistro (735 Eighth St. SE), Aqua is the brainchild of Bonior (primarily an investor), and his stepson and his stepson’s wife, Stephen and Amanda Briggs, who serve as co-owners and managers of the burgeoning dining portfolio.

The trio tapped Antonio Burrell, a seasoned toque who’s spent years filling local bellies with daring south of the border specialties during stints at El Centro D.F. and Masa 14, to craft a cost-conscious but creatively inspired menu.

Fired Up

After doing a bit of soul searching, Burrell said he decided it was high time to flaunt the flavor combinations that continue to gnaw away at him.

“It was a chance to … explore some of the dishes that I didn’t get a chance to do before and reprise some of the better dishes that I liked,” he said of a carte composed of modified greatest hits and experimental constructs.

(Courtesy Fredde Lieberman)
(Courtesy Fredde Lieberman)

Yes, he’s paying tribute to the pork belly al pastor (both in tacos and as a standalone entrée) he previously shared at Masa 14. Yes, he’ll be dishing out the multi-pepper powered chichilo mole short ribs (expect less cinnamon and less clove in this 2.0 version) he fell in love with at El Centro.

But he’s most excited about items such as an updated street salad tossing together fruits (watermelon, green mango), vegetables (chayote, jicama) and spicy stuff (red onion, hot peppers) in an agave-lime dressing, and a mushroom-covered fried masa dish he always felt others went a little overboard on.

“Our huarache here is going to be like a thin crust pizza,” he said of the split from the status quo. “Now that I have anyone telling me that I can’t, I’m going to.”

Burrell is also smitten with grilled oysters he’ll be doctoring with chorizo, chile butter and Parmesan breadcrumbs. And he’s looking forward to perhaps sneakily broadening patrons’ palates by exposing them to a host of carefully cultivated ingredients.

“Most people don’t know what epazote is,” he said, citing the leafy green he uses to tweak a red snapper dish. “So it’s a very different flavor than most people have had.”

And Burrell’s got big plans for the future, including adding lunch into the mix (on Dec. 28) and rolling out brunch (think: pumpkin pancakes, chilaquiles and migas) on Jan. 1.

Another possibility: a twist on queso fundido, wherein the crumbled chorizo and sautéed peppers are blasted with molten cheese foam.

“We’ll keep it in a canister, hot, and then we shoot and it so it makes a big espuma. And then we’ll flame mescal on it and serve it like that,” Burrell said of his dream appetizer.

He’s also got a few other showstoppers up his sleeve.

“I want to put the pig head tacos on there. But I can’t — yet,” he said.

Sticking Close to Home

Bonior, who said he moved into Capitol Hill Tower in 2006, marveled at how much the area has blossomed in recent years.

“It just pops at night. It’s quite specular, actually, down here with the water and the lights and the landscaping and the park,” he said of the waterfront location he and his partners secured for their second hospitality project. “So we’re very hopeful.”

Although he noted that had attended cooking school while stationed at Fort Lee in Virginia (“I know how a kitchen works,” he quipped) during his Air Force days, Bonior is quite comfortable leaving the day-to-day operations of the business to Team Briggs. An Aqua 301 spokeswoman confirmed that, prior to becoming restaurateurs themselves, Stephen was a general manager at M&S Grill, while Amanda climbed the ladder at Café Deluxe and Tortilla Coast.

All of which leaves Bonior, who handles investments for EnTrust Capital as part of his day job, in charge of relationship building.

“I try to bring people in,” he said of his role within their close-knit dining network.

To wit, Bonior said he bumped into Rep. Rose DeLauro, D-Conn., on Dec. 17 and invited her over to Aqua. Per Bonior, his former colleague promised to pop by with her husband in the near future.

Back when his first restaurant popped onto the scene, Bonior walked the halls of Congress to get the word out. “I want door-to-door in every office on the House side,” he said of his one-man lobbying effort.

Bonior doesn’t expect to make the rounds this time around.

“I had my time. It was a wonderful gift and opportunity,” he said of the quarter-century he spent in Congress. In fact, he said the last time he visited was to pay his respects to former Speaker Thomas S. Foley.

Meanwhile, don’t expect to see Bonior lending his name to just any food outlet coming down the pike.

“I’m a firm believer in one at a time. If there’s an opportunity down the line and it’s all in the stars, you might look at it and go for it,” he suggested. “We want to do what we do and do it well.”

Aqua 301: 301 Water St. SE; 202-484-0301; Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for dinner daily.

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