First Look: Cafe Agri

A recent dinner at Kingfield's Cafe Agri revealed an ambitious new place that still has yet to work a few kinks out of the system. In lieu of review -- frankly, I emerged from the meal profoundly confused, and unable to compose anything as organized as a 500-word column -- a few general thoughts about one of the most interesting and frustrating new restaurants to open in quite some time.

Cafe Agri, in a nutshell, is one of them thar organic gluten-free vegan vegetarian locavore sustainable raw food restaurants — except for the trout, although I guess Wisconsin may be close enough to count as "local," and I suppose trout is more or less free of gluten. It's the brainchild of Dan Alvin, who served as executive chef for Ecopolitan and Intelligent Nutrients, and it puts a big emphasis on removing meat from the center of your meal.

In a nutshell, Agri's menu is every rural right-wing hunter's idea of where urban left-wingers eat, except, again, for the trout. If you have an uncle from Grand Forks who you would like to annoy, take him to Cafe Agri. He will scowl at the menu for a good long time, and ask questions like: "What the hell is 'tamari?'" and "What, is gluten poisonous now or something?" and "Doesn't any of these have any meat in them? Can I just get a burger? Does the organic veggie burger just mean it has vegetables on it? Can I ask them to hold the vegetables?"

Before I dig any deeper, a quick note: I've cooked with and enjoyed tofu and tempeh at home. Mock duck is one of my preferred Asian dive restaurant proteins, and I'm a big fan of buying from local farmers whenever humanly (and economically) possible. So if the tenor of this post is perceived as critical, at least know that it's not because I'm a 1950s-era suit-wearing carnivore. Or an easily riled burger-craving uncle.

But I'll give you the punch line to the meal right now:

Immediately after dining at Cafe Agri, my wife and I went home and ordered a pizza.

My wife's trout filet was nicely, if austerely prepared (Agri is anti-sauce, which likely smacks too much of bourgeois pleasure and butter, if the two ideas can even be separated) — but it was miniscule. Kudos for demonstrating that you can plate a tiny portion of food rather than a massive, American fast-food feast... but, there is that whole "food=fuel" problem to be wrestled with.

My hazelnut asparagus and maple-glazed tofu was quite tasty; the balsamic maple glaze was subtle and engaging without being overly sweet, and the hazelnut bits loaned quite a bit of crunch and interest to the asparagus. The entire entree — the TWELVE DOLLAR ENTREE — contained three small squares of tofu, perhaps two inches by two inches by half an inch deep.

Do you know how much tofu you can buy for twelve dollars? Enough bloody tofu for a number of satisfying meals, thank you very much.

Here again, I feel the unpleasant need to discuss my own personal situation. I am not a big eater. When dining out, it's not at all unusual for half my meal to follow me home in a box — sometimes, it's two thirds of a meal. As a writer, I burn far fewer calories than I'd like, and it doesn't take much to feed me.

But, and I swear to God on this, after splitting an appetizer and finishing an entree at Cafe Agri, I was hungrier than when I started the meal. Some of this may be because the meal service took nearly two hours. Some of this may have been because I had to deal with my wife complaining about the two teaspoons of chard* that came with her trout. (Sample dialogue: "Chard is basically free. FREE! Why can't I have more chard?") But honestly, and in Cafe Agri's favor, a lot of it had to do with the fact that the food was good, stimulating, creative and in such scarce supply.

Another dish worth talking about: the beet ribbon salad. A big beautiful pile of raw beet, brazil nuts, mint and walnuts, and some dates -- love the dates. Yes, it was nine dollars, and that would give some people pause for thought. But the dish was nicely executed, creative, and stimulating, if insubstantial. A great appetizer, in other words.

But in its rush to be creative and principled -- more on that in a second -- Cafe Agri neglects a few critical aspects of dining: One, actually feeding people. Two, knowing your mission. Agri's goal seems to be attaching as many adjectives (dairy-free, gluten-free, seasonal, local, raw, heirloom, organic) to as many menu items as possible, but there isn't really one holy guiding aesthetic to the menu. For example: Why was there a kiwi slice sitting on top of the organic rice accompanying the maple-glazed tofu? Try Googling "Minnesota kiwi farm" sometime. Sure, it was probably (possibly?) an organic kiwi, and it's not made of meat.

Seriously: What's the mission...? Serving sustainable food? Assisting people with dietary problems? Providing delicious food? Providing enough food? Offering a good value? Helping people eat locally? These are not all the same thing, and can / do often come into direct conflict. "Pissing off Uncle Ron" seems to be the closest thing Agri has to a concrete gameplan.

Undoubtedly, the heart of Cafe Agri is in the right place, and they're struggling to make a restaurant that is as much of an antithesis to, say, Denny's, as is humanly possible. But doing the opposite of evil isn't always good. Mouse-sized portions, a menu breathless with its own righteousness and dairy-free, gluten-free mac and cheese — which may be delicious, but I will hate, yes, hate on general principle — may well alienate more folks than will be won over by the creativity, high quality of ingredients and good intentions of the chef and staff.

Make no doubt: Minneapolis needs more restaurants like Cafe Agri — restaurants ready to take risks, introduce diners to new ingredients and new ideas, and stand up for a set of ultimately admirable ideals, no matter how broad or poorly defined they may be. But — and hell, what do I know about the business of restaurants, in all seriousness — Agri may want to both broaden and more sharply define its appeal, up its portion sizes and maybe — just maybe — throw visiting omnivores a free-range organic chicken bone or two on the menu. *Described on the menu as "wilted greens." May or may not have been chard. Doesn't change the serving size or my wife's palpable fury at the portion size.

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