“I can’t not do this.”
Michael Agan has been working in restaurants for over 20 years, and he can’t not do it.
He’s cooked under some of our most revered local chefs (well, pretty much all of the revered local chefs) including Tim McKee of La Belle Vie fame, Steven Brown now of St. Genevieve and Tilia, and Doug Flicker of Piccolo and Esker Grove.
And even though he finally has his own restaurant — a very good one — you still might not know his name.
That restaurant, Xavi, is similarly obscure. It’s in the former home of First Course, a lovely but rather hidden location in Diamond Lake. Every chance he gets, Agan buries his name behind his partner James Elm, also a 20-year restaurant veteran, but this time in the front of house. To top it off, Agan gives his wife “at least 90 percent credit” for everything he’s accomplished.
In a nutshell, Agan might be the most self-effacing chef on the planet.
That partially explains why, after working behind the scenes at so many big-time, flashy, illustrious restaurants, Agan did not want a flashy one of his own. But he says it’s also because he loves “the element of surprise.”
“The best part of doing this,” he says, “is when someone sits down and says, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so much better than I expected.’”
During his illustrious career, Agan also worked the entire tenure of Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant in the Chambers Hotel, a “mind-blowing” experience, he says. The internationally known Vongerichten brought a “SWAT team” of incredible New York City chefs to train the local crew, a team who he says refused to dumb anything down for the Midwest.
Agan says the lead chef, Greg Branin, “is one of those guys who doesn’t look you in the eye, he looks into the back of your skull.”
“Once you get to that level,” says Agan, “you can’t deny it ever again.”
He can’t deny it, and you can taste it all over the menu at Xavi, where Southeast Asian influence meets contemporary French. It’s a cooking style you don’t see much around the Twin Cities (Jean Georges itself lasted fewer than three years in Minneapolis), but it’s a unique style, and one Agan does with tact.
His best work is with small plates and shareables — it’s his personal favorite way to eat and it shows. Every meal at Xavi begins with a little pot of house pickles, a small gesture that goes a long way toward making you feel welcome. It even says so on the menu: “Everyone gets pickles.” How could you not love that?
Among other things to love, the mango salad is a tropical stunner with punchy, fresh mint and scallion, bright yellow fingers of mango, and peppery fresh ginger vinaigrette that holds together shredded lettuce. Finished with cashews, it was perhaps only missing a spice element, but nonetheless it’s the kind of thing you’d happily devour daily.
Another cold salad tangles gossamer cellophane noodles and ginger shrimp poached just to that point where raw meets cooked, the whole of it cloaked with roasted chile, mushrooms, peanuts, and miso chile dressing. It’s a slippery, wild ride that cries out for a white takeout box and a pair of chopsticks, though it’s just a little too fine for that.
They do beautiful, fussy things with beef tartare, with three round dollops of ruby red, jewel-cut brunoise beef resting on seaweed-encrusted rice crackers, each with a yin-yang swipe of dark, fermented black bean emulsion and bright, crisp Serrano chile and Napa cabbage. It’s a topsy-turvy excursion that keeps changing until the final bite is gone.
Pork belly arrives in precise, laser-cut bricks of the fatty meat, crisped on the outside, soft within. Since it’s winter, you’ll find it paired with supple, sherry-braised endive and figs, but when the season permits, blocks of juicy watermelon balance the pork like opposite sides of a coin.
The menu changes roughly monthly, and I’d recommend keeping an eye on those changes and then heading over to celebrate the subtle shifting of the season and the ingredients and inspiration that follow.
The restaurant does serve entrees too, though I’m reluctant to spend any time mentioning them, because it just doesn’t seem like the way to use Xavi. Everybody loves a grilled hanger steak with mushrooms and Brussels, or a pork loin with potatoes and olive tapenade, but you’ve had them before and here they’re neither better nor worse.
Which brings me to my principal concern for Xavi. Tucked away in the residential community that is Diamond Lake, I wonder how many duck breasts with XO sauce (a funky, fishy condiment) the neighborhood is going to get hungry for. Xavi has boldly excluded burgers, flatbreads, and a Caesar salad with a flaccid chicken breast from their menu, and Agan insists that no one has asked for them. But will they instead ask for the pork loin and potatoes and miss out on the wonders of butterscotchy, wobbly miso-caramel pudding with crispy sesame crackers — a dessert that you want to dive into and eat your way out of?
I hope not. If Xavi were in either of the downtowns, or even Uptown, it would be the white-hot place to sip and nibble, nibble and sip. But instead, you’ll have to go out of your way for miso pudding and yuzu poundcake with shiso.
And you should. If enough of us make Xavi our special secret spot, perhaps it will become not so secret, and Agan can continue to do this.
He can’t not.
5607 Chicago Ave. S.