Peek Behind the Scenes at Chef Avishar Barua’s New Restaurant, Agni

Avishar Barua, a Top Chef alum and Columbus native, talks about some of the design decisions behind his new Brewery District restaurant.

Erin Edwards
Columbus Monthly
Avishar Barua stokes the fire in his Grillworks hearth at Agni.

Chef Avishar Barua jokes that his mom, Jayasree, would scold him for playing with knives and fire as a kid. Knives have long been part of the chef’s routine, and now the Columbus native has a new restaurant, Agni, dedicated to playing with fire.

In January, Barua gave us a behind-the-scenes tour at his then under-construction (but now open) restaurant in the Brewery District. Snow was on the ground outside; inside, the wood-fired grill was heating up the kitchen. We weren’t there to talk about food but rather restaurant design and kitchen gear. Here’s a look.

An anime illustration of Avishar Barua in a bathroom at Agni

Moody Interiors

From Day to Night Barua’s daytime café in Worthington, Joya’s, offers a cheerful color palette of orange, peach, pink and cobalt blue. Agni’s design team, including Mary Dietsch Architecture & Design and Jenn Stevens from Mynte Design Co., wanted to create Joya’s foil, with a moody palette of dark blues, grays and natural wood elements—a stark contrast that signifies the transition to nighttime dining.

A piece by artist Joe Engel hangs in Agni’s dining room.

Embracing Artisans At the entrance, a tiled host stand greets guests; behind it, there’s a small window into the bar from which welcome snacks may be served. The center dining space, opposite the newly refreshed bar by Millwork Elements, features colorful Indian textiles on the wall. In the third dining room at the back, a fire-breathing creature—a bear, perhaps?—looks down from one wall, a piece of artwork by Virginia folk artist Joe Engel that Barua and team procured at the Columbus Arts Festival. Opposite the artwork is a trapezoidal wooden table for larger groups, custom-made by Common Species.

Don’t Overlook the Bathrooms

Anime Art Wild bathrooms are a trend in restaurants of late (just visit Agni’s neighbor, Law Bird). The design team joined in the fun by commissioning Hanoi-based Blue Mint Anime (found on Etsy) to create an anime-inspired mural for one of the toilets. The scene depicts the chef around the family dinner table with his parents and brother. On another wall, Barua’s famous Cheesy Double Crunch tacos, served at Joya’s, look temptingly down from above.

Potty Fun Barua has a surprise in store for bathroom visitors. Both restrooms will be equipped with Japanese-style toilets with lots of buttons, bidet functionality, music and massage settings. Agni is all set if there’s ever a toilet paper shortage again.

An Agni wall detail featuring Indian textiles

A Versatile Kitchen

God of Fire Barua’s happy place is making the wood fires for his new Grillworks hearth. He prefers the “romance” of making a fire from scratch rather than using starters like charcoal, organizing his wood in “log cabin” formation. The grill, a $46,000 Langelier Elite X54 model, is a masterful design, with heat controlled both by manipulating the logs and burnt embers and by adjusting the grill surface height with a pair of hand cranks, which move the chain-driven grates up and down. The grill features cast iron (Barua’s preferred cooking surface) and V-channel (for capturing juices) grill surfaces. He can bury vegetables in the embers while he’s cooking over the grill, slow-roast chickens with the rotisserie attachment, or bake pizzas inside the super-hot, top oven chamber. “I’m stoked to have the tools to be able to do what we want to,” he says. Emphasis on stoked.

All-Wheel Drive Seared into Barua’s memory is when he and his Service Bar team pivoted to carryout-only business during the early days of the pandemic. “We don’t know what the future of the kitchen could be,” he says, noting that Agni is designed to be more nimble. Most of the equipment is on wheels, so the kitchen can be rearranged for a purely carryout experience if needed. “I don’t want to go through what we went through in 2020 again,” he says.

Private Dining

Clean Lines There’s a sauna-like look to Agni’s 12-seat private dining room, featuring three skylights and a long, black, custom table by Common Species. For the room’s walls, Barua had wanted to use the ancient Japanese architectural technique called shou sugi ban (aka yakisugi), which involves charring wood, often cedar, and rubbing off the soot to achieve a fantastic effect. Alas, it was too expensive. Instead, his team created a special tool to scrape the walls’ wood paneling. The result is a happy accident celebrating minimalism and clean lines.

Counter Service Barua’s architect encouraged Barua to create a more seamless transition from the dining room into the kitchen, at the back of the building. They added a two-person chef’s counter at the kitchen entrance, facing the grill—surely the warmest (and most action-packed) seat in the house. When we spoke, Barua was on the hunt for extra-long marshmallow roasting sticks.

Backyard BBQ

Moments Though not yet complete, Agni will eventually have an alfresco dining space behind the restaurant, just steps away from its neighbor Antiques on High. “You have these different moments in the restaurant where you have the front porch, which is street side. You have the elevated balcony, which is like sitting [on the porch of] a nice house. And you have the back, which is like someone’s backyard. We wanted every seat to be a different experience,” he says.

Smoke Signals Bolted near the back patio (and behind Antiques on High) is a beloved piece of Barua’s personal equipment: a reverse-flow, offset smoker for making Texas-style barbecue, for smoking condiments and more. The black behemoth, a Lang BBQ Smokers 108" Deluxe, is known in pitmaster parlance as a “stick burner,” which means wood is burned in a firebox off to the side of the main cooking chamber. The community-minded chef hopes to eventually make the stick burner available to neighboring businesses.

This story is from the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.