Wearing politics on your shirt sleeve can be a good way to stir up trouble. Broadcast whom you just voted for, troll incendiary Facebook posts, or challenge the in-laws at the holiday table and you're liable to raise hackles, eyebrows, and tempers.
A few clicks into Agra Culture's website -- the new fast-casual restaurant with a health-food bent -- and before you see a menu, a phone number, or hours, you will see this:
"What We Believe."
It's true that the whole business of having lunch has become fraught with worry, trepidation, politics, and nerve-wracking paralysis of choice. What kind of a person does my sandwich make me? Is my food likely to make me sick? What are my belief systems, and how do they gel with what I plate at the buffet?
So what does Agra Culture believe? That eating is an agricultural act. It's not an altogether untrue statement if one considers the definition of agriculture: "The occupation concerned with cultivating land, raising crops, and feeding, breeding, and raising livestock; farming." As eaters, yes, we're occupied with such matters. And if we're not, one could argue that we ought to be.
If you spend any time at all in the back-of-house at any restaurant you will begin to notice how pressing this occupation (Gluten free? Organic? Paleo? Vegetarian? Vegan? What farm? Local?) can truly be. It's enough to inspire a restaurant to put their politics on their shirt sleeves.
For its part, Agra Culture seems to cater to the most scrupulous of diners, the ones who won't touch protein to lip without research into its provenance. Each menu item, right on down to the chia seed pudding, is tagged with calorie counts, fat, carbs, protein, and gluten-dairy-vegetarian-paleo status.
The program leans toward a food-as-medicine approach in a neat little well-branded marketing package, with proclamations like: "There are many reasons behind making the decision to change your diet. Food allergies, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, chronic health conditions, fostering a sustainable environment — and simply the joy of utilizing whole foods to make satisfying meals — are just a handful."
Traditionally, eating for health over flavor (instead of taking the two together as a wholesome unit) can wind up feeling like a punishment. There is truly not enough room on this page to insert all the jokes about sticks-and-twigs health food.
And if flavor is as important to you as detoxification, how does a place like Agra Culture stack up? Is there any reason to take this seriously as a restaurant, aside from the many virtuous ways they might compel us to eat kale?
A Kale Caesar eschews the traditional holy anti-vegan trinity that is egg yolk, Parmesan, and anchovy, but then is served with a flummoxing garnish of shaved Parmesan and an errant slice of chicken (indeed, of unknown provenance). Though not a big problem to us, it's safe to say a vegan would have been nonplussed. The rest of it, heaps of shredded kale and strangely soggy Pumpernickel croutons, was the kind of dish that gets pushed aside and not thought of again unless to say something disparaging.
The signature Agra Harvest salad sounded encouraging, with napa cabbage and kale tossed with loads of sweet, savory, and textural favorites — quinoa, organic beets, butternut squash, cauliflower, organic apple, smoked gouda, dried cranberries, candied walnuts, raw sunflower seeds, apple cider vinaigrette — the sort of thing to make you feel virtuous and gratified all at once. But we resorted to inspecting the thing, and we found within the greens precious little of the other bits to make it a delicious whole, and none of the promised quinoa.
Meats come with the buzzword "nitrate free," though with the nitrate issue still a controversial one, the jury is out on whether the traditional (and very common) method of curing meat with nitrates is or is not a health issue.
But what isn't controversial is whether a single strip of flaccid, undercooked (albeit nitrate-free) bacon makes for a suitable addition to a Turkey Basil BLT. The basil aioli added an herbaceous little whiff of summer, though — and we seized upon it to make the thing edible.
The Agra Culture take on a Muffuletta (New Orleans's many Muffuletta institutions would no doubt balk at all the liberties taken with the name of this hallowed Sicilian sandwich tradition) has more nitrate-free meat, this time in the form of salami, pressed into foccacia with fontina, artichoke hearts, organic roasted red pepper, olive tapenade, and kale pesto. Again, an order over-promised and under-delivered — the best one could say is that it was indeed a sandwich, and that it was edible.
The "Create Your Own Agra Plate" menu section is Have-It-Your-Way for a new generation, or better yet, the Yogurt Lab of savory foodstuffs (both companies are owned by the same individuals). Choose your base, a protein such as salmon (wild, of course), tofu, beef (Angus, naturally), or half a dozen others. Then top with a sauce — we tried a smoky and flavorful Romesco over cage-free chicken — and have your choice of sides. Harissa yam wedges were nice, but a brown "unfried rice" was uninspired as can be. We'll take ours fried, please.
The sheer number of permutations on the build-your-own list alone is paralyzing — it takes a really long time to order — and considering that the end result is a glorified salad, perhaps not worth the effort, especially on a menu with a dozen or so composed salads. A sesame-crusted seared tuna Nicoise was pleasant but plain, and cried out for an arsenal of condiments we finally hauled to the table.
Fresh-pressed juice offerings include the standard yoga-mom add-ins, ingredients of ambiguous health benefit that sound cool to order: acai, camu camu, maca, et al. The Maca Tropicali with banana, pineapple, mango, maca, lime juice, salt, and coconut milk is sweet as a Jolly Rancher and perfect for a sugar fiend, without the obvious guilt.
At the end of the meal we were full if not exactly sated, and on the bright side, did not suffer any of the after-effects a rich meal can induce.
Perhaps we're not the intended audience here (no food allergies or gluten-intolerance, for instance), but on the merits of culinary aptitude alone, we cannot say that Agra Culture works. In a town lucky enough to have the likes of Brasa and the Birchwood in our backyard — places with chefs who have long-standing ties to farmers and the whole foods they produce, as well as an eye toward health and dietary concerns — we have the luxury of being a bit shrewder when we dissect good intention, good-feeling, and do-goodery out of the aggregate sum of good eating.
Yet, in a food-frenzied culture that loves to "grab something" on the way to go do something else, maybe there is a place for the Agra Cultures of the world. An Arugula Detox Salad is problably a better life decision than a Double Down. Still, we're wary of self-congratulatory piousness when it comes to the inherent joys of the table. The virtues of eating "well" are far-reaching and wide, with layers of meaning including — but also beyond — all considerations to gluten, probiotics, multigrains, fair-trade, flax, and the never-ending pursuit of righteous repast.