By Tom // Posted 28 January, 2009 in: Restaurants
Ever since I noticed it opening in the old My-T-Fine (great name for a tea shop, why did it close?) on my way to work, I have wanted to try Cafe Agri. I think I was mostly drawn in by their logo and their slogan “from field to fork”. At the time I was under the sway of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (I still am, but it was fresh) and excited by the idea of another restaurant based on local and seasonal food close to my home.
Reviewing the menu that was posted a couple of weeks later gave me pause. The food did appear to be local, but what was all this tempeh nonsense? As it turns out, Agri focuses not only on local and sustainable food, but also on vegetarians and vegans. Fair enough, but not the kind of place that calls my name. Still, I was intrigued and, after a few months, decided it was time to give it a try.
On entering the place, we couldn’t help but be impressed by the decor, particularly the many interesting light fixtures. Martha could probably say more about this but she’s not here so hah. Anyway, Agri gets high marks for atmosphere.
They also have a very good selection of interesting wine and beer, mostly organic. You might miss this while trying to decipher their inexplicably centered drink menu, but there really are a lot of good, reasonably-priced choices. We both went beer.
And then there was the menu itself. Reviewing the six entrees, I began to despair. There was plenty offered to make the vegetarian, vegan or celiac sufferer happy: very limited meat (one entree with trout), tempeh and tofu aplenty, and as little gluten as possible. But, since I am none of those things, I wondered what exactly I wanted to order and pay $16 for. Butternut squash ravioli? Now where have I seen that before? Tempeh terrine? With pork or goose liver? Penne Primavera? In inverno? In the end we decided to just have a couple of appetizers and head for greener (well, less green) pastures. So keep in mind that this is in no way a fair review.
We ordered two dishes: the yam crisps with fresh guacamole, described as “baked–not fried!” which I assume was meant to be a recommendation rather than an apology, and the falafel (also baked) with cucumber salad and yogurt dill sauce.
The yam crisps themselves were good. Besides having beautifully curled edges, they were, in fact, crisp with a pleasant, not overwhelming sweetness. The guacamole, on the other hand, could not be described as good. It was severely underseasoned, resembling those awful supermarket guacamoles made with sour cream or mayonnaise. I suspect, had the lighting been bighter, its color would have been closer to brown than green, but I have no way of proving this. I also wondered from which farm in Minnesota they had obtained the fresh avocados, especially in winter.
As for the falafel, I should never have expected to like it in the first place since it was billed as “Baked Falafel” and I don’t like baked falafel. This certainly was baked falafel, in all its sandy-textured mediocrity. It was topped by a tasteless tomato slice (did I mention it’s winter?) and yogurt sauce, which deserves neither praise nor blame. The cucumber salad was really a quick pickle of thick-cut, seeded cucumber slices and onion. Serving pickles with falafel makes good sense since pickles are very popular in the Middle East, but this was a sweet pickle rather than a sour-hot pickle as you might expect with Middle Eastern cuisine. Inauthenticity is of course not a fault per se, but I didn’t think the sweet pickles really did anything for the falafel. In any case I would have preferred fresh cucumber.
And that was all we tried. Hardly enough to base a review upon, even in these troubled economic times. But I think our reaction to the menu points to a problem with Agri and other restaurants like it. Local, organic and sustainable food are all good things. We really need more restaurants to make such food a priority; indeed, it should be the default. For that future to happen, however, food that is local, organic and sustainable has to appeal to the public: it should be relatively inexpensive (which should happen anyway because of reduced fertilizer, equipment, and transportation costs) but more importantly it should be delicious. Instead of seeing these things when he goes to a restaurant like Agri, average, closed-minded John Q. Public just has his presuppositions about this kind of food confirmed: bean curd compressed to various textures and shapes prepared in thin sauces by ascetic health nuts. Not for me. Organic and sustainable does not have to mean soybeans, and maybe it shouldn’t at all. Of course, Agri might not even want these customers. They may have intended to primarily serve vegans and vegetarians (god knows they could use a few more places) and not to be the ambassador of local/organic/seasonable/sustainable that I had made them in my mind. If Agri’s content to preach to the choir, that’s fine, but I won’t be in the pews.