The fast-casual restaurant model has exploded over the last decade, with new chains and concepts popping up faster than you can say "top-gaining market share." But many of these quick-service newcomers have featured not-so-healthy stuff on their menus. Agra Culture Kitchen & Press in Uptown has taken the convenience components of fast-casual and banded them together with a line-up of organic, GMO-free, mix-and-match dishes with special designations for dietary styles of every kind. After our visit for a First Look, we came to think of Agra Culture as doing everyday spa cuisine in a polished, but casual cafe setting.
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Once inside, Agra Culture's dining room is designed to get traffic in and keep it moving through. However, the menus, projected on TVs above the ordering line, are dense and seemed to stop up all the other customers, most of whom had a litany of questions about what, exactly, was in each dish. But that's pretty much par for the course where customizations, substitutions, and add-ins are offered. Calories and grams of fat, carbs, and protein are all readily available and listed for each dish.
The menu, perhaps unsurprisingly, is heavy on the salads. So many in fact that they're divided into two categories. The smaller "simple" salads are still super nutrient-dense and loaded with ingredients, like the arugula detox salad -- a colorful, textural mix of beets, avocado, radishes, and apples, topped with sunflower seeds and a light apple cider vinegar-based dressing. The more entree-worthy "signature" options feature things like tamari-doused kale, gingered carrots, and seared tuna. Need a little more bread to make it really feel like lunch? Agra makes a handful of sandwiches too, including a roasted chicken banh mi and a BLT with nitrate-free bacon. We opted for the Agra Plates, a build-your-own situation where you pick a protein, a sauce, and two side dishes to make a square meal.
Agra's employees are eager to explain how everything works and helpful in offering suggestions about what goes together best. Choosing from vegan, vegetarian, meat, and seafood protein options, we landed on seared scallops (which seemed more sauteed than anything, lacking that lovely crust you look for on seared meats and mollusks) with a slightly spicy and sweet apricot chutney. The cold French lentil salad with carrots and bits of red onion, was tasty and well-balanced; whereas the fingerling potato hash needed just a touch more seasoning.
For Agra Plate number two we went for a fairly predictable combo of miso-seared wild salmon (better handled than the scallops, if a touch dry) with chili flake-sesame broccolini and "unfried" brown rice with leeks, bell peppers, and beech mushrooms. The overall effect was of a dinner you might make for yourself if you weren't so lazy and actually went shopping and then washed and chopped everything like you're supposed to. It wasn't earth-shakingly creative, but was satisfying, light, and tasty.
In addition to being a clean eaters' dine-out haven, Agra also functions as a coffee shop (all drinks made with Dogwood espresso) and juice/smoothie bar. This Beet It concoction, made with yellow and red beets, ginger, carrot, and orange was earthy, energizing, and about $1 cheaper than the same thing at Whole Foods.
Conclusion? Conscious-eaters, both those who care about their health and the sourcing of their food, who still find themselves needing a quick breakfast, lunch, or dinner (there's a kids menu, too) will appreciate the array of options here. People pinching their pennies would do better to peruse the deli options at Seward Co-op and more practiced health food aficionados will still probably prefer something along the lines of Tao Natural Foods, but Agra fills a niche for the neighborhood, especially as a pit stop from shopping or a quick pre-movie dinner.
Agra Culture Kitchen & Press 2939 Girard Ave. S. (Walkway Apartments) (612) 315-3349; agra-culture.com
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